River Teeth by David James Duncan

(Book 148) WOW! This meeting was so long ago! The day after the meeting, my family and I packed a rental car and I drove 2,600 miles from Chicago to Seattle, crossing three major rivers, stopping at four National Parks, four Historical Sites, three National Monuments, two Native American cultural sites, driving through eight National Forests and visiting eight curiosities such as the “Day the Music Died” crash site, the Mitchell Corn Palace, the Irma and Occidental Hotels, the Sierra Silver Mine and of course, Wall Drug. In Seattle, we boarded a cruise ship to Alaska, stopped at four ports in Alaska where I bought a used book from a vending machine in Sitka, we panned for gold, attended a lumberjack show, a salmon bake, saw bears, eagles, and totem poles, and Tom adopted an owl. The ship returned us to Seattle where we took in the Space Needle and Pike Place Market (yes, we saw the fish tossers) and we flew back to Chicago. Denny and I started school a week late and I’ve been putting off trying to remember everything that happened at book club ever since. Since we have had already had our September meeting, I can put it off no longer. I apologize to our hostess, Susan in advance because I’m bound to short-change the incredible evening we spent on her deck.

Starters included a salmon mousse, goat cheese, date nut bread, a lemon ricotta with the texture of cheesecake and a triple brie. There were two amazing salads; one was orzo, spinach, tomato and chickpeas; and the other was arugula, hazelnuts, feta and blueberries. The main course was grilled salmon served with a mustard dill sauce and it was extraordinary. I’ll leave it at that. Dessert was the most refreshing lemon mousse. The food and the weather could not have been better, and we thought Marcia was the only one who could order weather to her liking.

River Teeth is summarized as a “collection of short stories in which characters are undergoing the complex and violent process of transformation, with results both painful and wondrous. Equally affecting are his nonfiction reminiscences, the “river teeth” of the title. He likens his memories to the remains of old-growth trees that fall into Northwestern rivers and are sculpted by time and water. These experiences—shaped by his own river of time—are related with the art and grace of a master storyteller. Author Sherman Alexie offers “David James Duncan is in love with water, the rivers and streams that coursed through his life. Believe me, you will be swept up by his rivers, carried downstream, and deposited in a new place. In that new place, Duncan will build a fire and tell you a bunch of stories. What else could you want?”

We talked first about the concept of ‘river teeth’ and I read part of the definition that Duncan offers at the beginning of the book: “

There are small parts of every human past that resist the natural cycle: there are hard, cross-grained whorls of memory that remain inexplicably lodged in us long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away. Most of these whorls are not stories, exactly: more often they’re self-contained moments of shock or of inordinate empathy, moments of violence, uncaught dishonesty, tomfoolery, of mystical terror; lust; preposterous love; preposterous joy. These are our “river teeth” — the time-defying knots of experience that remain in us after most of our autobiographies are gone.

Then, we talked about our favorite teeth. The favorites included Northwest Passage, The Garbage Man’s Daughter, The Mickey Mantle Koan, and Molting. The least appreciated was Kali’s Personal.

Northwest Passage: Sharon, Susan and Geri listed this one as one of their top picks. This story is of two young men (fishing buddies as kids but not as close now in their teens) who drive, then hike to a confluence of rivers. Once there, they were awed by the sight of coho jumping out of the water and splashing back down; as each fish leapt it made a splash followed by an echo. Neither of the boys fished, they just sat and watched. “…for those salmon leaps were language. They were the salmon people’s legend enacted before our eyes.” I think we were all struck by the visual of this one.

The Garbage Man’s Daughter: This is the story of a little girl born to parents whose love for each other was of a fairy tale variety. In stark contrast to her parents, the daughter just wants the straight facts and eschews all the fictional characters that typically bring joy to a child’s life. She doesn’t believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny but one day she gets the idea that her parents have also made up a character they call the Garbage Man and she can’t imagine why. This one was my favorite and it was also on Linda, Sharon and Susan’s list. My favorite moment is when the daughter imagines: “Maybe there was an outright war going on between real Magic and human fraud!” We all thought that the relationship that developed between the daughter and the garbage man was very touching.

The Mickey Mantle Koan: This was at the top of the list for Linda, Chris and me. This is the story of how shortly after the author’s brother John, who was a complete baseball fanatic, died of heart complications, David receives a signed ball from John’s hero, Mickey Mantle. Chris commented on the hypnotic effect of the boys practicing, the rhythm of throwing and catching, and how reminiscent the sports fanaticism was of her own childhood. Though I held up because of narrative such as “I was moved to a state of tearlessness” because the eulogy seemed to be describing someone other than his brother, I finally broke down in tears on page 131 when he solves the riddle on the ball: ” It was autumn when it happened, the same autumn during which I’d grown a little older than my big brother would ever be.”

Molting: Susan and Chris mentioned this one as a favorite. It is a story of a week long storm in Oregon, water and wind coming off the Pacific, with little chance for outdoor activities. A neighbor comes to borrow some dry wood to burn and after the wood is chopped she points to a meadow for another beautiful visual ending:

We are nearly upon it before it moves. And though it is a hundred beings, two hundred wings, that rise up before us, it is one deft gesture that pierces the rain: one mind, cleaving the whole dark valley, as the hundred sun-bright goldfinches rise from the dead brown yarrow.”

Chris commented that this type of remarkable event reminds us — oh, yes, this is why we put up with all the rain! She added that Duncan’s writing just keeps coming back to nature and how nature will proceed as it intends to proceed. Chris also suggested we check out his novels The River Y and The Brothers K as they are even better than his short stories.

I think I did it. I think I’m done. Next month, we continue our Anatomy of a Book Club with The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan.