by Bruce Murkoff
Alfred A. Knopf
At a recent holiday party I was cornered by a boor who told me that he loathed historical fiction, and insisted that I explain to him why I write such stuff. Why, he wanted to know, didn’t I “just write history?”
A couple drinks into the evening, I was most eager to seek out old friends and impress young women, but he had piqued me into trying to defend myself. I tried my usual lines, about how the past always informs the present, and how after all War and Peace was historical fiction, and so was The Iliad, and the ancient Greeks didn’t call it “historical” at all but regarded it as one of the foundation myths of their society, a living, meaningful story, and why shouldn’t we be just as involved with our history, on all levels, as myth and fiction as well as “straight” nonfiction?
The boor wasn’t buying it, though, and I had to palm him off on a much larger, more aggressive writer, who soon had him pinned to a wall, lecturing him on the difference between art and pop art. Well, such is the price of free gin. But the question continued to nag at me, since I’ve often been asked things by various interviewers. Why not just write history, indeed?
A much better rebuttal than I could provide is offered by Bruce Murkoff, in his debut novel, Waterborne. It is a story about one of the great engineering achievements of American history, the construction of the Hoover Dam, and if this does not convince you that historical fiction is worth the candle maybe you should just read history, or better yet, give up reading altogether, for it is lost on you. Waterborne is a formidable achievement in its own right, an engrossing story, masterfully told—and the dam is only a small part of it.
To use Murkoff’s own, controlling metaphor of a river, his story is simple enough on the surface. It traces the lives of three characters, all recently traumatized to one degree or another, as they converge on the dam’s construction site during the traumatic year of 1932.
Filius Poe is a brilliant, somewhat aloof engineer from Wisconsin, a man of considerable accomplishment who has recently been sundered from his beloved wife and child by a calamitous boating accident. Lena McCardell is a good-hearted housewife from Oklahoma—and content to remain just that—when she discovers that her Bible-salesman husband has a second wife and family on the road, and she takes their young son and goes to live with her best friend, who is running a café in the dam boomtown of Boulder, Nevada. Lew Beck is a brutally tough construction worker, the son of a butcher in Los Angeles who has had to fight his way through life due to his diminutive height, and who is well advanced on the long devolution from nice Jewish boy to sexual psychopath.
What keeps one reading, as these three lives flow toward a somewhat predictable collision at the dam, is how thoroughly Murkoff has imagined their worlds. Even the most passing characters are superbly rendered, and alive. Every stretch of roadside landscape, every conversation and urgent thought feels as though the author has experienced it personally.
Waterborne is filled with the knowledge, and the craft of things, everything from sailing a boat to ice fishing; from selling Biblical tracts to collecting a gambling debt; from touring Paris in the twenties to…building a dam. This is the sort of writing that is a pleasure to read even when the technical details are lost on a layman. For my money, Murkoff’s prose is even more lyrical and evocative than Charles Frazier’s tour de force in Cold Mountain, and his subjects are infinitely more diverse. Young lovers in Paris watch as “the sun rose and light shimmered down the narrow street like something presented to them on the blade of a knife,” while a boy playing baseball fields groundballs that “reminded him of matinee cartoons, of rabbits pinging across the desert and cannonballs gone amok.”
On nearly any given page one can find such looping, daring, elegant sentences as this one on Lena McCardell’s departure from Oklahoma: “It was four in the morning when she woke the boy, his body salty sweet, his skin still spicy from the wild sage he’d run through behind the smokehouse on his way to the muddy pond where he spend the day chasing frogs around the crumbled edges of stinky muck and cattails.” Or Murkoff’s description of something so mundane as the hundreds of dump trucks necessary to service the dam: “The fleet, already suffering after two years of abuse, was allowed to stop for gas and belt changes, but otherwise kept running, their engines cooked and bearings shot, the brakes worn down to metal sighs, the roofs fortified with dented sheets of scavenged tin, the doors hacked off so drivers could ride with one foot on the runner, windshields busted out early for fear of broken glass.”
There are some, slight flaws in characterization. Filius and Lena, and all the other good guys, are perhaps a little too good to be true. Lew Beck has perhaps a few too many chances to display his terrifying temper. One wonders just why this sort of predator has become so prevalent in American fiction and film today. I’ve used him more than once myself, this raging man. He seems to pop up almost automatically, no doubt a totem of the violence that lies buried closer to the national heart than we would otherwise like to believe.
In Waterborne, he appears to represent both how one’s own life can take a terrible wrong turn, and the chance of unforseeable, violent accident in the lives of others, like a submerged rock or a river sandbar. But like all the best writers, Murkoff does not let any of his characters stand as simple metaphor. Lew Beck is, instead, a brilliantly realized individual, one whom the reader even feels some sympathy for, and his tormented presence keeps one riveted to the page.
Then there is the history, which is largely oblique here. Murkoff duly acknowledges the Depression, but nowhere does it seem like the yowling terror it had become in America by 1932. A lame-duck Herbert Hoover makes a brief cameo at the dam that would be named for him, and a woman spits in the wake of his car—but after all, as one character points out, at the time Boulder was the only town in America where everyone was employed. One would also like to know a little more about the greater purpose of the dam, of how it would change the land and a whole way of life in the West—but it also seems likely that the men who built it would indeed have been focused almost wholly on the awesome work at hand.
None of these caveats detract significantly from the work. Murkoff, who is over 50, has made an astonishing beginning, and can have a brilliant career if he wants it. One can’t help but wonder where he has been all these years; his author bio reveals only that he “spent many years in California,” and now resides in upstate New York with his wife. No matter; it’s easy enough to imagine one taking a lifetime just to think out such a seamless and intricate work.
And he has provided us with that answer to why we read and write historical fiction. It is because, with all the wondrous things we do today, we no longer build thousand-foot dams that tame great and ancient rivers. It is because our curiosity cannot be limited to the shimmering surface of fact, but longs to get at the deeper currents, the lives that people lead, today or yesterday or whenever. It is because there can be no limitations, of time or place or imagination, on telling a damned good story.
Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novels Dreamland and Paradise Alley.
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