Book Review:  Riverman: An American Odyssey by Ben McGrath

Riverman tells the story of Dick Conant, an itinerant canoeing enthusiast. Self-describing as homeless, he might have been like many other wandering vagabonds, albeit with a preference for waterways rather than dry land, had he not bumped into McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, beside the Hudson River in New York. McGrath found Conant enigmatic and his travel stories interesting and wrote an article about him for the New Yorker. Months later, he received a call from a law officer in North Carolina saying that Conant’s canoe and some of his belongings were found in the water along the shore of Albemarle Sound, but there was no trace of Conant.

I like tales of travel adventure, but one reason I put off reading Riverman was that I already knew that it culminates with the tragic disappearance of Conant. This book is similar in a way to another travel tragedy I read not long ago called The Adventurer’s Son, about a young man who disappears in a forest in Costa Rica and his father’s search for him. Both involve a complex search for threads of information about the missing person, and both end in the discovery of the protagonist’s death.

The phone calls sets McGrath off on the trail of Conant’s past, and Riverman is a compilation of his research. Part of it is told in first person as McGrath travels the country interviewing people from Conant’s past as well as those who encountered him on his wanderings, and part of it is told in story form based on manuscripts Conant left behind. If truth be told, parts of the book are a bit confusing when McGrath focuses on the complex stories of people that Conant met along the way.

Often when I read of the journeys of other travelers, I envy them and feel a longing to be back on the road myself, but not in the case of Riverman. McGrath makes it clear that Conant’s homeless wanderings were not easy. His canoe, for instance, was loaded with garbage bags full of his belongings, making it look like the aquatic equivalent of the shopping carts that you see homeless people pushing around in cities. It was often arduous and dangerous on some of the rivers and coastlines that Conant traversed, and he had to continually be on the lookout for safe and clandestine places to camp.

I sympathize with Conant’s hunger for the freedom he felt during his river journeys because I had that same hunger during the years I spent on the road, hitchhiking and taking cheap local transport from the United States to Central America to Europe to the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent, as I relate in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

As I read Riverman, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret that Conant was never able to turn the thousands of manuscript pages he’d written about his journeys into a first person memoir. McGrath describes him as quite a raconteur, and his personal account probably would have been fascinating. I mentioned above that Conant’s story never would have been told if he had not had the chance encounter with McGrath, and that made me wonder how many other wanderers there are out there on our highways and byways and waterways whose stories have not been told. I have no doubt that most if not all of society’s outcasts, those you see out of the corner of your eye in homeless camps or along the roadside or along the shores of rivers, have gripping stories to tell. In fact, their lives may be far more interesting than those who remain in one place and work most of their lives so that during their down times they can live in sedentary comfort and gratify the cravings of their flesh.

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