The First Chapter of Down in the River

Blacketter

Down in the River releases on January 6, but we’re making the first chapter available a month early for all you eager readers. It is also available for pre-orders, so head over to our order page to secure a copy at a 20 percent discount.

Down in the River explores mental health disturbances—and the behaviors that attend them—with frankness and compassion. Ryan Blacketter writes with a basic acceptance and understanding of the protagonist, Lyle, never exaggerating his behaviors, but always locating the quiet humanness that animates him. Ultimately, Lyle’s fevered journey along the margins of youth culture is driven by fierce love and a deep, instinctive need to find a liturgy for loss and grief.

“His brother didn’t speak, but Lyle figured he knew what the answer would be. Most of the photographs of his dad had Lila in them, so they were off limits too. But his brother and mom had never wanted to talk about his dad, either. Maybe anyone dead was off limits.

‘I can’t see any pictures, then,’ Lyle said. ‘Not one.’

‘Quit talking, and take your pill.’

‘I didn’t say her name.’

Craig’s mouth twitched. ‘I said I heard all the talk I want to hear. Take the pill, right now.’

Lyle tucked the pill beneath the spiny egg on his plate. His brother flipped the egg over, with the pill stuck in its yolk—a sick, downward-looking eye—removed the plate, and dropped the pill on the cloth placemat printed in tiny runaway stagecoaches.

Lyle set the pill on his tongue and sipped milk. In the living room, he fell back on the couch, spat the pill into his hand, and dropped it between two cushions. Then he worked the remote through the channels. After watching part of a show where people competed by eating bananas, he turned to a special about high school cheerleading squads. A girl fell from a pyramid of cheerleaders and two of them caught her before she hit the floor. Another falling girl was caught. It was only beautiful kids who people mourned. When one of them died the way his sister did, everyone came out with tears and good words. In fact, they kept talking for weeks and wouldn’t shut up. It was okay to talk about the pretty ones—it was even a pleasure. Everybody wanted a piece of a death like that.

The teapot made a banshee noise. Craig and his mom rattled spoons in their cups of instant coffee. They were talking low-voiced beneath the gospel music and TV. Lyle heard snatches of their conversation. He heard her say, ‘Pray that boy doesn’t go crazy on us next,’ and, ‘He ain’t a bad one clear through. He has his merit points.’

His eyes pinched when she said he wasn’t bad. When she was soft, he loved her in a way he couldn’t at other times. But her softness angered him, too, because he disliked it that he cared. For a moment he wanted to tell her that he wished he could do what she wanted him to. Back when he was in youth group, in the mountains—before he ‘set Jesus on the shelf,’ as she put it—she had been warm toward him, and he had been part of things.

That night he left the apartment after his brother and mom went to bed. His night legs were coming into him, and he had a fierce need to run. The air smelled of wet dirt, as if the ground nearby had been freshly turned. Flying rain stung his face. He loped along the tracks downtown, holding his folded, sharp-pointed umbrella in one hand. The tracks rose onto an embankment, and he walked on the ties, between window ledges close enough to leap onto. In one building, a man made rows of bread dough on a table, tattoos of red ropes looping his arms, a stiff cone of beard. The man sang with the stereo, and Lyle heard the edges of his furious song. A few minutes later, in a phone booth outside of the A&W, he searched his pockets for change, then turned over his sister’s photograph, smelled the peppermint ink from the candy cane pen, and dialed the number. The woman who picked up wanted to know who this was and what he wanted. When he heard himself breathing into the phone, he moved the mouthpiece to his chin, wanting to explain that he was one of the good kids—from the mountains, raised Christian.”

Read the Rest of the First Chapter Here!