Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin

ten mile river

Standalone, Dial Books, 2008, 188 pgs.

Ray and José are modern day Boxcar Children: on the run from the foster system, living on Cap’n Crunch and wild-caught fish in an abandoned stationhouse on the banks of the Ten Mile River. They steal what they need, pull shady jobs to get enough money to eat, and try to make a life for themselves out of the scraps that they have. Eventually, a girl comes into their lives who will change the way they look at things. Eventually, they get real jobs and try to work themselves into society. And, eventually, they begin to find out who’ll they’re going to be in the end.

And now, for something completely different: contemporary slice of life!

As much as I most often fall into the fantasy/science fiction niche, I do make some effort to branch out beyond my main interests. Especially when something catches my eye or I know there’s a good chance I’ll like it. I originally picked up Ten Mile River because last year I read and loved The Orange Houses by the same author, which made reading this novel an interesting exercise. Because, for all their similarities, these two books were very different experiences.

Like The Orange Houses, Ten Mile River focuses on the lives of troubled teenagers in lower-class New York. And like The Orange Houses, this novel takes its characters through brutally honest, awful situations towards some small hint of salvation.

I’d say the similarities end at the subject matter, though, because in everything from structure, to tone, to prose these are very different books. On one hand this is a shame, because it ends up nixing a lot of what I loved about the previous novel. On the other, the new things it’s doing work well for the story being told here.

The key changes here are structure and language. You see, I originally loved The Orange Houses because on some level it felt like slam poetry to me, and I liked the idea of working that into a prose piece. A lot of that was style, obviously, with its fast-paced, rolling, musical feel. But a lot of it was also just the structure of the novel, the chronological breaks and shifts between characters intended to hit certain points of emphasis. It was this style that I really loved, and I was hoping for more of that here.

Ten Mile River is a drastically different work, though, to the extent that is almost seems like someone decided to steal the author’s identity. It’s one story, told from one perspective in little episodic bursts set across a couple of years, instead of the beautiful build of the previous novel. It’s all chronological too, with no poetic insets or breaks in the narrative. Instead, it’s day after day in a way that almost seems pointless and listless. And most disappointing of all is the prose: stilted and awkward, with no flow to carry the reader along.

As bad as that sounds, I think all of it is actually intentional, though. The characters in The Orange Houses were artists and poets, and the style of the writing made that clear as much as the plot did. Our two leads here, José and Ray, are juvenile delinquents and high-school dropouts trying to survive on their own, and Ten Mile River’s style reflects that instead.

It’s less enjoyable for me but purposeful, and I’m not entirely sure how I can come down on it when it’s something that so clearly has meaning to the piece. It works for what it wants to do, and it’s not like it’s not readable or anything.

If I do have one legitimate qualm about the way the novel is written, it’s the way José mixes up his words. His saying one thing and meaning another is a running joke intended to show his lack of education and his apathy toward learning. And for the most part it works; he tries to pull out an SAT vocab word, mistakes it, Ray corrects him, and he ignores the correction.

About a quarter of the time, though, they feel like mistakes no one who’s spoken English their whole life would make. Like they’re played up for humor, more than true to the situation and character. This could work if José was a purely comic figure, like Dogberry, but for most of the novel you’re supposed to see him as sort of tragic. It throws the characterization off for a cheap joke, and could have been easily avoided if Griffin had just toned it down a little.

Which is sad, because the characters were the one thing I really did enjoy about the book. I think it’s becoming abundantly clear to anyone who’s read more than one of my reviews that characters I like can make up for a lot of other flaws in a work for me. If the prose and plot were underwhelming to me here, then the fact that our two leads were beautifully done was what kept me going.

They’re very different, with José as the cocky player who doesn’t seem to want anything more than to stay out of juvie and Ray as the shy, whip-smart, gentle giant who might actually make something of himself if only he could leave his friend behind. In spite of this, they’re never played against each other, with one being lauded as the role model; instead they’re brothers who support and care about each other.

José keeps telling Ray to go back to school, get his education and do something with his life. Ray keeps refusing and continues to help José with his criminal activities in order to watch his friend’s back.

They fight, yes, and have their issues, but the book never really takes one of them and makes them into the villain. While reading you have sympathy for both and really want them to get to a more stable situation together. And part of that sympathy is in the fact that they’re both written as real, awkward teenagers, albeit in very different ways.

If the prose is a little stifled and the plot is a little actionless, then I’m willing to forgive it for fun characters who are written with an eye toward understanding, rather than judgement. As much as this didn’t live up to The Orange Houses for me, I don’t think it’s a bad book. It may not be a surprise favorite like the other, but it knows what it wants to do and pulls it off well enough.

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