Review: ‘Riverman,’ by Ben McGrath

A second book runs beneath the surface of “Riverman” like an undercurrent, and hints at the reasons McGrath is so drawn to Conant’s story. In an age when everything is relentlessly online and the real world is increasingly mediated through screens, Conant and his canoe represent something slower and quieter, closer to nature. “In idle moments,” McGrath writes, “between calls, I’d look out the window at the broad Hudson, where barges slid back and forth in the distant channel, and I’d start to think of our village of Piermont less as a satellite of the enormous economic engine downstream than as part of a network of hundreds of small towns in an inside-out riparian nation: the United Riverbanks of Conant.”

McGrath likes that Conant seems uninterested in publicity. He’s socially gregarious, an inveterate collector of people and experiences, but he remains indifferent to cultivating his own legend. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t keep copious notes. McGrath’s investigation is aided by Conant’s impressive self-documentation: photos, journals, emails and letters, much of it stashed in storage lockers in Montana and Utah. All of this gives McGrath a sure path to follow, and his efforts to retrace Conant’s steps amount to a kind of immersive journalism, where to understand his subject he inhabits his world and worldview.

That world isn’t always a happy one. For all of his logistical and physical abilities, Conant is also homeless and psychologically haunted, worried enough about the possibility of diabetes and gout that he plots his river itineraries to make sure he can find a VA hospital when he needs one. A brilliant student who was president of his high school’s junior class and voted the “picture perfect” graduating senior in his yearbook, he now lives mainly on pickled hot dogs. He hasn’t seen anyone in his large family of him for years. He craves human contact but avoids forming close connections, ever alert to “the faintest hint of a wince or a half-second’s hesitation” that might signal he has worn out his welcome from him. He tells friends he still dreams of settling down and talks fervidly about a sweetheart out West, but Ella McGrath’s efforts to track her down lead nowhere; it appears likely she’s more fantasy than flesh. Adrift in life, Conant seems to have set himself adrift on rivers partly to escape a society where he was seen “as a misfit rather than a rugged charmer.”

Yet life as an affable river vagabond suits him. Again and again in his reporting of him McGrath finds people who remember Conant fondly after their brief encounters, who went out of their way to help him and who describes the powerful effect he had on their imaginations of him. McGrath sets all of this down in prose that is poised and elegant, almost circumspect. When his personality does poke irrepressibly through, the effect is unexpected and delightful, as with the wry parenthetical that closes this passage about Conant and the modern world: “Had he been born later, it occurred to me, he’d likely have been blogging , or posting his artwork on Instagram, along with pictures of cantilever bridges and morning mist (#riverlife).”

Mostly, though, and to his credit, McGrath has the good sense to stay in the shadows, to ensure that the main personality on the page belongs to Conant. And what a personality it is. In his quoted journal passages, Conant has a strong and distinctive voice, well suited to his persona de él as a quirky folk hero: “There is a fine line between a man of exceptional courage and a damned fool,” he writes on one occasion . On another: “Well, I have to die of something. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind croaking out on a trip like this.”

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