A terse but often graceful chronicle of a family's decline and fall -- a family, to be sure, that never got anywhere in the first place -- "The Remains of River Names" is either a novel or a collection of interlinked short stories, or perhaps something in between. Whatever it is, it's an auspicious debut volume for 29-year-old Matt Briggs, whose sharp-eyed yet sympathetic vision of life in the overgrown, semi-rural backwaters of the Pacific Northwest puts him somewhere on the spectrum that leads from Raymond Carver to Kurt Cobain. His style is certainly terse and declarative in the now-familiar Carver tradition. But his characters are often startlingly self-aware, and even in their dead-end desperation they remain alive to the remarkable landscapes, both fecund and desolate, that surround them.
Briggs' biographical note explains that he was raised by "working-class, hippie parents" in the Snoqualmie Valley, east of Seattle. So it's tempting (if ultimately irrelevant) to assume that the fictional Graham family of the 1970s and '80s resembles Briggs' own, and that Dillon, the Grahams' youngest son and the most consistently likable of the book's narrators, is something of a self-portrait. Dillon, who's around 8 at the beginning of "The Remains of River Names," wakes up one day to discover that his pot-dealer parents, Art and Janice, have vanished from their ramshackle house. They've taken the car, the food and even Dillon's toys, leaving nothing for Dillon and his 12-year-old brother, Milton, but a dinner roll, a little peanut butter and an almost mocking pile of house-and-garden magazines.
It turns out that Art and Janice are on the lam. They eventually retrieve Dillon; Milton, Janice insists, is "old enough to take care of himself." The apathy and even hostility with which they view their own children is characteristic; all four members of this nuclear family are shooting off into space on their own solitary trajectories. But if Briggs is making a point about how ill-prepared '60s casualties like Art and Janice were to raise kids of their own, he does so without rage or didacticism. In fact, in a later chapter called "The House Below Laughing Horse Reservoir," Janice emerges as one of the book's most sympathetic figures. With Art in prison, she makes one last stab at holding her family together, taking the boys to a distant town where she hopes to reconnect with Ray, an ex-boyfriend who is now an important apple grower.
Even Art, a paranoid and self-centered father, gets his shot at redemption, in the chapter called "Sewage Lagoon." With his wife and kids far in the past, Art is out of prison and living with an Alcoholics Anonymous devotee who has vowed to leave him if he drinks a single beer. Nothing much happens on the night Art falls off the wagon and heads to the sewage lagoon to sleep it off, but the episode shows off Briggs' terse lyricism at its best. This portrait of a man so deep in loserdom he can only be an optimist -- who wakes in his car after the binge relieved that he has gotten "an early start for once" -- is compassionate without being sentimental.
For most of "The Remains of River Names," however, we bounce from the precocious, compulsively neat Dillon to the uncommunicative, dangerously moody Milton. Rejected by Janice, Milton runs away to live in an abandoned house with his girlfriend and turn tricks on the Seattle streets. The less socially adept Dillon stays home and essentially becomes his mother's keeper. Briggs captures both boys wonderfully as children, but he renders Milton's (unhappily plausible) progress into a violent, misogynistic adult too sketchily for it to be entirely convincing.
Briggs has quite consciously (I think) endowed both these characters with improbably graceful interior voices. Milton looks at a table of women on the make in a smoky bar and notices "the fancy glasses, the kind that looked like upside-down bells, the tall, skinny kind that opened toward the top like stretched flowers." Watching his girlfriend sleep, the adult Dillon muses: "I want you to know I will see you awake again I will not let you wander away ... like some forgotten vocabulary question. You are not just a word or a name." Although Briggs isn't fully in control of this device yet, it can produce some striking results, most notably our sense that Dillon -- despite being deep in debt and trapped in the working class -- is the Graham clan's real hope for the future. Whatever the balance may be between imagination and autobiography in "The Remains of River Names," Briggs' career holds great hope, too.