"I didn't plan the trip, at least thoroughly," Mike Freeman brags in the opening lines of his new book, "Drifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson." The book itself has the same freeform feel as the trip; drifting is both an appropriate title and an apt description of Freeman's writing style.
The chapters read like a series of sweeping essays, which despite their fluidity, rest comfortably on the geography and chronology of New York's Hudson River. Freeman may have brought only a "crude map," on his journey, but the book serves as a detailed map for both the river and Freeman's rambling thoughts.
For a 40-year-old, unemployed American only recently introduced to fatherhood, a two-week river trip seems both understandable and a little irresponsible. But, like many seized with "source-to-sea" fantasies, Freeman manufactured several good reasons for the trip. Ostensibly, he's re-discovering his country and himself. I suspect that he saw an opportunity for a cool trip, somehow convinced the mother of his young daughter to let him go, and made for the hills.
And, though Freeman's daily facts make frequent appearances, he spends two weeks living the "triumphant life," a phrase he borrows from one of two books he carried with him; The Adventures of Augie March. Freeman shares the same "luck and pluck" philosophy as Saul Bellow's hero, and glorifies self-exploration and a minimalist, improvisatory masculinity that has driven countless voyages since the invention of the boat.
Despite the bluster and skimpy planning, Freeman makes it. With surprisingly few mishaps, he navigates the three "zones" of the Hudson watershed beginning on a wild mountain river, moving to an intermittently dammed series of stillwaters, and concluding on the Hudson's tidal lower reaches.
Not only does he make it, but by the end of the book, we feel that we've made it with him. Freeman's prose is engaging and conversational. Though it's sometimes jarring to be pulled from the narrative present to months after the trip's completion or years before, Freeman generally uses these anachronisms subtly and to good effect.
His strength is in present observation and a focus on the specific, but Drifting is far from a mere trip log. As he drifts downstream, Freeman recalls snippets of verse and prose addressing both the physical river and his thought-life. It's not just literature that finds its way into the story - baseball, movies and current politics are part and parcel of Freeman's premises.
Freeman coined the word "littoir" to describe this profusion of influences an internal terroir of his literary forebears. It's a play on "terroir," and suggests that Freeman's reflections might have the depth of a fine wine. From Augie March to Dickinson and Dylan Thomas, we're led on a tour of English literature as it spoke to Freeman during his adventure. When he gets to Dr. Strangelove and Caddy Shack, though, a cheap beer metaphor might have been more appropriate.
As we join Freeman from Henderson Lake to Harlem, we come to know his mind's influences and workings from a penchant for bird watching and campy movies to the clipped, declarative sentence structure that must exactly mimic Freeman's speech patterns to himself. Drifting is a polished-up record of a man's two-week monologue during a thought-provoking river trip.
That plain-speech style defines the book, which is at the same time too broad to pin down, yet worth reading closely. Freeman might as well be describing the experience of reading Drifting when he says in the final lines, "I can't say what the trip meant, or what the Hudson might mean to America's past present or future, only that like any waterway, its banks are littered with rune... Take some time. Put your hands on them. Listen."
Christian Woodard is a freelance writer who lives in Middlebury, VT. He's paddled much of Freeman's route, though never in one go.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.