Brian Kiteley

Here are some reviews of and interviews about The River Gods:

A retrospective Steve Himmer did of my novels for Necessary Fiction.

An interview Francesca Rheannon did with me in the spring of 2011, for the show Writer’s Voice, about The River Gods (scroll down to the bottom of the page for the link to the actual podcast).

Matt Bell, American Book Review:


Kiteley is at his best when he’s channeling the members of the novel’s presumably autobiographically based Kiteley family, including his mother and father, his grandfather, his siblings, and of course some version of himself.  In a book mixing fact and fiction at this high a level, it’s perhaps fitting that the facts Kiteley is presumably closest to are also the ones that produce the richest fictions: Kiteley’s family’s story begins with his mother in 1962, shortly after the family’s arrival in Northampton, and ends in 1993, with his brother Geoffrey’s death from AIDS.  One of the book’s most affecting passages comes in a section narrated by Kiteley’s dying (or perhaps dead) grandfather, who tells Kiteley’s fictional self a story about seeing a train stopped upon a set of railroad tracks in the woods years earlier, only to realize he’s remembered all the details wrong.  “What was the purpose of these easily recognizable flaws in the story?” he wonders, before Kiteley’s persona supplies both the answer to the grandfather’s question and a key to unlocking the pleasures of this book: “Maybe you wanted to know it was a dream, so you could enjoy the experience more.  If it were a pure return to that time, how would you be able to savor the sensations?”


The grandfather narrates his response, saying that


My grandson continues talking, despite having exposed this lovely revelation to me....  He is telling me stories from my past, which he does well now, although he has difficulty keeping straight the fictions he is writing and the facts he has gleaned from my own probably inaccurate stories.


Of course, this “difficulty” in keeping fiction separate from fact and telling accuracy from inaccuracy is part of what’s so enjoyable about reading a book like The River Gods, which offers its own well-drawn sensations above and beyond the dry assertions of history.  It’s worth remembering that even the best histories are a selected story, a greatest hits list of events and places and peoples complicated by varying levels of truth and verisimilitude.  Kiteley’s researched, remembered, retold Northampton is just as likely to be true as any other, especially because, as the grandfather in the above-mentioned section notes, Kiteley “is still among the living, and this gives him a certain amount of authority,” an ability the author assumes so as to raise fiction and history to equal levels of seeming truth.  It’s this authority that makes The River Gods so compelling, and watching Kiteley claim it for himself in the fiction is as illuminating as it is empowering.

Andy Stewart, in Rain Taxi:

[A] key element of The River Gods is that it presents a mystery in its very form and loose organization--not one to be untangled via an unfolding plot, but a mystery of personal lineage, ancestry, and geography that gets revealed through self-examination and reflection.  Kiteley truly puts something of himself in this novel.  He invokes the voices of his family members as characters: his mother, Jean; his father, Murray; his grandfather, Eric, who is always armed with bug-collecting nets; his brother, Geoffrey, who is dying of AIDS.  Kiteley even includes his own personal narrative from different points in his childhood and young adulthood.  Self-examination happens via reenactment, through the rehashing of pivotal moments and memories in Kiteley's and his family's lives.

The River Gods poses a question that good literature often does: Where do I come from?  Kiteley tries on several different hats in an attempt to answer this question, and to understand the history of the place in which he was raised.  This sort of examination culminates in an irresistible and stunning piece of thought-provoking fiction.  In his storytelling, he makes myths of them all--presidents, murderers, passers by, brothers, grandfathers--and, in the mythmaking, he imparts a deep respect.  All characters exist as equals on the same lofty tier in this novel.  They are, all of them, River Gods.

Alan Cheuse, on All Things Considered (National Public Radio):

River Gods such as Israel Williams, 70 years old in March of 1779, alternate chapters with members of novelist Kiteley's own family: his grandfather, his parents, his gay brother, and various other inhabitants of Northampton.  They speak in monologues, opening their minds and hearts to the reader as might, say, spirits at a seance, with the novelist as the inspired spiritualist.  The result is an intense and beautiful collage of speeches in time about events in this one place from the familiar in every day to the divine.  A 16-year-old Christian boy in the spring of 1738 says, Molly and I do not deceive out of fear of discovery, or because it pleases us to, because we do no one harm, and because we enjoy accumulating venal sins.  Jump forward to 1989, and the novelist himself chants the names of Northampton Streets: First Square, Florence, Young Rainbow, Old Rainbow, Locust, Myrtle, Maple, Elm, Audubon, Evergreen.  By this method, Northampton, Massachusetts, in this unlikely and memorable tribute to one writer's hometown, becomes everyone's location.  "The River Gods" conjures up a local habitation by means of aesthetic magic.  It's a meditation, a celebration, an investigation and an elegy.


Dika Lam, in The Nervous Breakdown:


Brian Kiteley first came to my attention via The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, his wonderful book of writing exercises.  A professor in the University of Denver's creative-writing program, Kiteley advocates improvisation and play, urging storytellers to free themselves from the constraints of literary labels: "There is and should be no real difference between fiction and nonfiction.  The distinction between the fictional and the fact-based world is overrated and the distance between the two is shorter than most critics imagine."


The professor practices what he preaches in his novel The River Gods (FC2, 2009).  In 65 first-person portraits of the residents (both real and imagined) of his hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, Kiteley's narratives span the years 1064 to 1995 in a triumph of ventriloquism.  The River Gods is a supernatural version of NPR's StoryCorps, a mash-up of historical fiction and on-air confessional—it's a wonder the book isn't outfitted with an antenna....


In the death scenes, the writing is poetic and unsentimental: A young man describes the event as "Life leaps athletically out of me."  A man felled by a thunderstorm in 1813 says "… a blue light seeped from my mouth, as if it were smoke, but it was denser than smoke, crackling, almost like handwriting."  A WWII soldier says, "When I solved this problem of dying, it was as though my body, which moments ago had been a large complicated knot, was untied with a single firm tug.  Then my body seemed to buzz, tapping into a low galvanic current.  Then the current was switched off."


In a recent Time Magazine cover story, Lev Grossman set up a dichotomy between the big-canvas writing of Jonathan Franzen and the fragmentary scribbling of miniaturists, implying that expansive 19th-century novels are the best way to convey big ideas about society: "The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm."


But Grossman and his fellow Franzenfans would be wrong to assume that you can't get a picture of the larger culture by focusing on the little details: the "enormous radio" that is The River Gods manages to touch on religion and politics, love and loss—and you can't get any bigger than that.


Harry Mathews:


The River Gods presents us with a cornucopia of bittersweet vignettes: glimpses of the lives and deaths, the loves and larks and sorrows of a New England town, across several centuries interlaced.  Strikingly original, it deserves to become a classic, for all its sophistication a very American one: it tells us who we have been, in a way we never could have guessed.


Brian Evenson:


The River Gods is a subtle portrait of the way the ripples in the human pond complicate one another.  It tenderly examines the filaments that connect individual to family and family to town and town to nation and nation to world, and shows how rupture, love, death, and memory shiver their way up and down these filaments to create a delicate whole.  A beautifully rendered investigation of joy and loss, and of the way in which longing and desire and regret can lap over the divide between life and death.


Eli Gottlieb:


In The River Gods Brian Kiteley masterfully employs his patent narrative method of uncanny subtraction, removing the ligatures of conventional fiction the better to provide a field of implication in which the historical mysteries of America can resonate to maximum effect.  In response to the postmodern insight that everything is happening at the same time, he brings demonstrable proof of the fact in this luminous, perfectly sculpted novel whose sentences flow as easily through the mind of a nine year old boy in 1960’s America as they do that of an 18th century Puritan divine.  The River Gods is one of the most searching portraits of our country I’ve ever read.


Martin Riker, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2010:


The River Gods is a soft-spoken novel, filled with history and nuance and contemplative space.  Told as a series of first-person accounts by historical characters in or around the town of Northampton, MA, the book effectively pulls about 400 years of that town’s history into a collective narrative portrait.  The form is spatial rather than linear.  Kiteley moves forward and back through time, allowing each speaker his or her specific contemporaneity, so that the town’s identity emerges not as a palimpsest—its present-day streets and houses and inhabitants “written over” its deep historical past—but rather as a kind of historical simultaneity: these people may have lived at different points in history, but they are all speaking right now in this book.  These were real people, often famous ones (Jonathan Edwards, Sojourner Truth, William Carlos Williams), yet here their primary contribution to the identity of Northampton is not their historical relevance, but rather their assumptions, quirks, flaws, joys, walks, deaths, and all the other elements that composed their experiences of the world.  The past comes to us with the same precision as the present, in the particular qualities of the people who lived here over time. 


This insistence on individual particularity is what allows for The River Gods’ central dramatic gesture, which is also its most profound: the melding of cultural and personal memory.  For in addition to being a town thick with history, Northampton is also where Kiteley grew up, and his own family features largely among the narrators, providing the closest thing the novel has to a narrative arc.  The stories of his father and grandfather and his mother and himself develop throughout the book, but foremost is the story of his brother, whom we watch proceed from a precocious intellectual child to a mild-mannered homosexual man, through to his death as an early victim of HIV.  These were real people, too, equally distinct as individuals and equally a part of the history of this town. 


B. J. Hollars, Colorado Review, Spring 2010:


Kiteley's novel explores the battle between time and space and declares space the victor.  He reminds us that humans are all afflicted by time limitations; space, however, is beholden to no one.  Near the end of the book, Geoffrey Kiteley, the thirty-eight-year-old version of the author's brother, accurately depicts the book's style while speaking of a particular film.  Geoffrey notes the film director's "cutting and pasting location shots with no regard for geography or progression through space, working more like the way a dream does."  His words resonate, causing the reader to rethink Brian Kiteley's grand experiment.  We wonder: Is this, too, a dream?  Has Brian Kiteley conjured the impossible?  While the novel retains a dreamlike quality, it's evident that the author (unlike the director Geoffrey references) actually does hold the highest regard for geography, blending history with literature, while maintaining an allegiance to both.


Edward Shanahan, the former managing editor of Northampton's newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, in


Novelist Brian Kiteley, who grew up in Northampton, has pulled off a daunting literary feat in his recent book The River Gods.  With an amazingly large and celebrated cast of characters and a loving recollection of his hometown, Kiteley, 53, has offered up a blend of fact and fiction that plumbs the heart and soul of his Northampton and views it through the prism of the last 350 years.  Much of the story is narrated through the voices of the author, members of his family, including his precocious brother, Geoffrey, sister Barbara, and his parents, Murray and Jean, along with Brian’s Canadian grandfather, Eric Kiteley.  Hordes of Brian’s school chums and neighborhood pals also make appearances.  His parents reside these days at the Lathrop Community in Easthampton, but theirs and by extension Brian’s and Geoffrey’s stories begin in 1962 when the family arrives in Northampton where Murray has joined the Smith College faculty, fresh from a teaching post in California.  On arriving in Northampton, Jean, early in the book, offers this reaction: “We moved into the Smith College faculty apartments on Fort Hill Terrace, a large horseshoe-shaped set of one-and two-story buildings … there are about a dozen families at Fort Hill … everyone welcomed us with open arms, but I worry this is too easy, an uncharacteristic experience in what I know is usually stuffy, cold-shouldered, aristocratic New England.”


The Kiteleys are joined often in the narrative course of The River Gods by many figures recalling the city’s rich historical past, the earliest being 60-year old Gideon Child, a member of the original Nonotuck settlement in 1654.  Others who have supporting parts and the dates of their appearance, are John Pynchon (1675), Joseph Hawley (1777), Joseph Parsons (1678), and Sojourner Truth (1852).  Let’s not leave out Ludwig Wittgenstein (1949), Newton Arvin (1955), and his lover Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Ben Bradlee , Richard Nixon (1969) and his daughter Julie, poets William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, writer George Washington Cable, and Mike Nichols, director of the 1966 movie “Who’s Afraid  of Virginia Woolf,” along with its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  You get the picture, a novel as extravaganza, as well as a novel as history, memoir and, most of all, place.  In bringing in these players from the distant past, the author, in an afterword, says this: “Historical figures, especially those whose recorded utterances I’ve used, are as historically accurate as I could make them, although much of the presentation of these ghost is also necessarily phantasmagoric.”


As a relative newcomer to Northampton (1971), I can attest to the impact living in this city has had on our family as well.  The longer we have been here, the deeper our roots and the greater our affection for Northampton, past and present.  It is a singular place, no doubt about it.  It is easy, thus, to relate to the Northampton summoned up in The River Gods.  The overarching tone of the book is nicely established by Brian’s boyhood and coming of age, and his lasting affection for the town.  Yet there is no heavy-handed effort to sanitize or idealize Northampton.  Those of us who know the city and something of its history, understand exactly how he feels.


Finally, I was particularly moved by the portrait that emerges of Brian’s brother, Geoffrey.  He seemed so perceptive beyond his years and his outlook on life so liberated, only to die at such a young age, a star burning brightly but too briefly.  In any case, I can’t recall a book that deals with the Northampton experience that I have responded with more enthusiasm.


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