T. E. Grau builds his debut novel I Am the River (2018) from a basic premise well established now in historical fact: there was no way America was going to win the war in Vietnam. The only possibility was to end the war which eventually happened with America’s withdrawal from the country and the subsequent quick collapse of South Vietnam. But what if there was a way to not only end the war, but to defeat the enemy?
In I Am the River Grau presents a tale of devastation on several levels as a grim, determined, rogue and enigmatic “spook” with pull within the military, Augustus Cornwallis (Augie) Chapel, assembles a crew of five strangers to enter the off-limits territory of the sovereign nation of Laos to conduct a highly secretive campaign: Operation Algernon. The men are “good soldiers,” but ones who “stumbled and were cast aside, declared unfit for combat, when nothing could be further from the truth.” Chapel has a definite plan: overly profuse amounts of destructive and deadly Agent Orange, cluster bombs, “dead bodies, or even atrocities” have not been a success in Vietnam. “We get into the core of each man, woman, and child fighting for the Communist cause, and we scare the living daylights out of them… Get weird, dig down into the myths and gods and spirit realm… It’s the only way we win.”
Grau skillfully and creatively utilizes two narrators in I Am the River. One is an omniscient voice which chronicles in tantalizing fashion the efforts of the small crew in Laos—the very mission of which is shrouded in secrecy even from the five men fulfilling the brunt of the work. Readers are exposed to vivid details about the trials of soldiers moving through a jungle environment while being kept in a maddening state of constant suspense and wonder as the men move deeper into Laos and get closer to their destination, known only by Chapel and possibly an assistant, and closer to their chilling destiny.
The portions of the novel revealed by the all-knowing narrator, as mysterious as they are, are nothing compared to the segments narrated by one of the American soldiers among the five, Israel Brossard. His nightmarish disclosures plunge readers into dizzying visions of paranoia, terror, and surrealism. Readers will be quick to surmise Brossard’s voice is that of a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but come to realize there is likely even much more behind the fearful state in which Brossard finds himself.
Adding to the provocative method of Grau’s use of alternating narrative voices throughout I Am the River is the fact that Brossard’s thoughts and visions, frequently interrupting the flow of what would ordinarily be the novel’s focal story, do not fit any logical chronological order of the novel’s events. Instead, his mental wanderings range from the events of the expedition during Operation Algernon to five years after the fact. Grau’s storytelling, thusly, demands the reader’s attention and adds immensely to the allure of the work.
Racism, bigotry, the horror of killing, survival, conscience, anguish and darkness, guilt, and shame all make their appearance on the stage of I Am the River. Grau brings his novel to a close after an explosive climax, tying up loose ends in stunning fashion with the possibility of redemption, giving readers what they seek from the beginning: answers to Brossard’s near madness and Chapel’s obsession with Operation Algernon in a haunting conclusion. Nominated for a 2018 Stoker Award by the Horror Writers of America for “Superior Achievement in a First Novel” as part of their preliminary slate (at the time of this review), I Am the River is the kind of intelligent horror many readers crave and in which they will take delight.