Outdoorsy tales like this, from Hemingway’s early Michigan stories to James Dickey’s “Deliverance” on down, typically use woods and waterways as proving grounds for masculinity. But Graff, a Wisconsin native and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wants to unravel some of the expectations of the genre. Nature, here, isn’t impressed with masculinity at all, and it’s prepared to smash machismo against its rocks along with anything else.
Before it delves into any of that, though, “Raft of Stars” comes on like an updated Huck Finn tale. Two 10-year-old boys, Fischer Branson and Dale Breadwin, head to the river from the hamlet of Claypot after Fischer shoots Dale’s abusive, alcoholic father. Terrified of what the police will do to them — especially Dale, who’s now orphaned — they plan to head to the National Guard armory where Fischer says his dad is stationed.
Fischer is dodging not just a potential murder charge, but his past: Unbeknown to Dale, Fischer’s father was killed in action after Operation Desert Storm. (The novel is set in 1994 — largely, it seems, so none of the characters can easily communicate with cellphones.) And Dale is eager to ditch his own history: “Breadwin was a name everyone knew in Claypot. It was synonymous with cheap auto work and the worst kind of man.”
Fischer and Dale are nicknamed Fish and Bread — Graff couldn’t make the boys’ earthiness any clearer if “Raft of Stars” came packaged with a clod of river mud. But the boys are still boys, amateurishly prone to foolish notions of survival. Short on food, they concoct a stew of worms and chewing tobacco, which goes down as well as you’d expect.
Here’s where the real men usually step in. But chasing them from one direction are Cal, a sheriff recently from Houston and inept in the Midwestern wilderness; and Teddy, Fish’s grandfather, an experienced outdoorsman who’s slowed by age. In time, Cal loses a boot and his weapon, reduced to sputtering at his horse, inept as Barney Fife: “Well, life ain’t that simple, Mr. Horse! No it ain’t! Because life don’t leave a man alone!”
Chasing the boys from another direction, and somewhat more competently, are Fish’s mom, Miranda, and Tiffany, a young down-at-heel gas-station clerk who’s a romantic interest for Cal — until Graff starts tweaking that familiar expectation as well. The two pairs both suffer embarrassments and humiliations on the trip, but the overall effect is that of boys’ story without being a stubbornly manly one. Fathers are absent from the story — serving only as symbols of bad news.
And though “Stars” isn’t an outright tragedy, there’s little in the way that feels triumphant. Mostly what the woods and river do are flatten our humanity into pure survival mode. Fish is particularly attuned to its rough justice: “The whole world was hungry, and the whole world was fed,” he observes at one point. Later, after witnessing a melee between a bear and pack of coyotes, he notes, “This world was all wrong, the way everything had to eat each other.”
That puts Graff in line with some recent novels that have upended our expectations of adventure stories: Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling” (2017), put an intrepid 14-year-old girl front and center, and Erica Ferencik’s novels have featured female ensembles on the rapids (2017’s “The River at Night”) or the tropical wilderness (2019’s “Into the Jungle”). We want all of the terror that comes with being left to our own devices; it’s just that a macho hero needn’t be at the center of it.
Graff writes exquisitely about the wilderness, both its dangers and the way its freedoms enchant the novel’s two prepubescent leads — the joy they find in building a raft and escaping capture is palpable. And though he’s playing with the genre, he preserves a few old-hat elements of it. There’s a hokey down-home humor of Cal sputtering at his horse, and his hapless deputy. Tiffany and Miranda go on a fact-finding mission that’s ripped clean from a sitcom plot. And a late-breaking twist arrives to reinforce the slaying-the-father theme, which makes it no less incredulous.
Ultimately, though, Graff recognizes that his main job is to deliver a gripping adventure tale, which the concluding chapters offer plenty of — dangerous rapids leading to life-threatening waterfalls, menacing black bears and coyotes. To say who walks away and who doesn’t would spoil the story, but Graff closes with a foreboding mood that, in the long run, man is always the loser in any man vs. nature story. “The darkness had come too close. It had come with so much force. … And the darkness would come for them again,” he intones. Untamed nature is bad news for humanity in general. But it’s always good news for adventure stories.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”