With the Great American shadow of The Grapes of Wrath looming ever large in the collective literary consciousness, the Great Depression is a gutsy choice of setting for any historical novel, let alone a debut. Although Bruce Murkoff borrows buckets of period scenery and language from John Steinbeck's wellspring, along with a penchant for vividly rendered incidental characters, Waterborne, his Depression-era debut, doesn't come close to reaching Grapes' epic majesty.
Shuttling between three main story lines and four main characters--Lew Beck, an emotionally scarred, pint-sized thug; Filius Poe, a grief-stricken engineer who lost his wife and young son in a boating accident; Lena McCardell, on the lam from life as the unwitting second wife of a bigamist Bible salesman; and her young son Burr--Murkoff uses the itinerant nature of life in the 1930s as a backdrop to explore his characters' backstories, through fully realized flashback vignettes. Excepting several sex scenes that read like Internet fan fiction--all "milky dampness clinging like syrup," and the like--Murkoff has a flair for sensory detail, tempered by an overreliance on adjective-noun constructions. For the most part, however, the childhood environments that Filius, Lena, and Lew remember on their respective treks through America's truck stops and prairie back roads enrich their present-day story lines. Lew's contentious relationship with his Jewish immigrant parents and Lena's experiences with her aforementioned philandering husband make for particularly telling character development, and Filius' memories of his dead wife, Addie, are some of the most striking prose in the novel, tangibly capturing the engineer's deep longing for his lost way of life.
Of course, it's inevitable that all four characters, like a river flowing toward the sea (a metaphor belabored in the novel's short opening chapter, and revisited ad nauseam throughout), will converge at some point. Murkoff brings everyone together in Boulder City, Colo., "the only city in America where everyone has a job." Once there, the tender attraction between Filius and Lena takes center stage, resulting in a melodramatic, David Guterson-style tale of human connection and triumph over adversity, symbolized by the dam workers' efforts to harness the raw power of the Colorado River. Murkoff loosely parallels his characters' individual transformations with the geographically transformative nature of the Boulder Dam--a choice that feels predictable and heavy-handed. Overall, though, Murkoff's willingness to dwell on physical details, from Filius' "long wing of a nose" to a nameless waitress' "palely shadowed armpit," outweighs Waterborne's self-conscious and ultimately failed attempt at Capital G Greatness.