Bruce Murkoff’s new novel, Red Rain, builds handily on everything he did well in his remarkable debut novel, Waterborne. Waterborne was one of the great under-read novels of the last decade, marred only by a few plot contrivances, and Red Rain suggests Murkoff is well on his way to becoming a great American author. His prose evokes a lost world buried within our history, and his characters are fresh, lively, and always fascinating.
Red Rain is largely plotless, built more around incident than anything else. Will Harp, who in 1864 returns home from a long time away in the wilds of the West to his ancestral upstate New York, putters around his father’s farm, hoping for a reconciliation he knows won’t come, since his father has died. Mickey and Jane Blessing are a brother and sister who do the secret, deadly bidding of the town’s richest man. Coley is a hard-drinking 13-year-old with a pet squirrel, while Pearl is an African-American girl who could almost pass for white, and who dreams of a better life.
Around these five vividly drawn central characters, Murkoff sketches a community of other souls, drawn together by the plans of the Blessings employer and by the discovery of a mastodon skeleton on property bordering Will’s farm. When Will buys the other property to begin assembling the skeleton with the help of his photographer friend Arthur (and eventually a host of other characters), the novel slowly finds its form, less about confrontation and plot machinations than about the building of a community, a new home where the many broken characters can find solace.
A lot of this shouldn’t work. Murkoff darts between so many characters and voices that it can become a chore to sort out who’s doing what, and there’s often a sense that Murkoff doesn’t do enough credit to the passage of time—events that take place over the course of five months often seem to blur by over a couple of days. Furthermore, there are some clumsy stabs at symbolism, as with a wraith-like mountain lion that haunts the hills around Will’s farm.
But Murkoff improbably pulls all these strands together and makes them work. The novel’s latter passages create an effect not unlike the Hudson River that brings Will home and that Mickey tries to wash himself clean in—the story rolls along as implacably and lazily as the water. Murkoff doesn’t just create a set of characters and a setting to place them in; he creates a whole world for these people to inhabit, and the best passages of Red Rain are often just long paragraphs of description, where Murkoff richly evokes that world and how the people in it remember it fondly or with hatred.
One of the great themes of American fiction is the idea of building a community out on the edge of some barely understood frontier, a place to feel safe against the onslaught of darkness. Murkoff sits proudly in that tradition. He never loses sight of the things that make his novel historical—the Civil War is always just over the horizon, and Will’s time among the American Indians forms the novel’s emotional spine—but all the same, he invents a community that feels warm and welcoming, even to modern eyes.