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Book Review

A River Runs Through Superb Love Story

GRAND AMBITION, A Novel, \o7 By Lisa Michaels\f7 , W.W. Norton, $22.95, 276 Pages

August 17, 2001|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rivers--especially literary rivers--are treacherous. Dam them or divert them, and they still cut back to the lowest ground. Mark Twain knew this. Try as he might to make "Huckleberry Finn" a rafting trip down the Mississippi, his book soon found its way into the heart of the American psyche. Joseph Conrad knew this as well, though he was perhaps less disingenuous than Twain. Rivers, it seems, are fast tracks to our deepest fears and our most painful realizations.

When Glen and Bessie Hyde departed from Green River, Utah, on Oct. 20, 1928, en route to the Colorado River and their final destination, Needles, Calif., they hoped to make history. Either they'd set a speed record for running the rapids, or Bessie would become the first woman to make this journey. But something went wrong. By Dec. 9, they were overdue, and a few weeks later their 16-foot scow was discovered floating in an eddy just past Diamond Creek, the couple nowhere to be found.

In "Grand Ambition," Lisa Michaels answers the mystery of their disappearance in her own surprising and magnificent way. Ignore the rumors about the Hydes that have surfaced in recent years--that Glen, for instance, forced Bessie on the trip and that she, feeling trapped, killed him--Michaels tells a decidedly less sensational but far more satisfying story about two people falling in love, about ambition and acquiescence played out in the most epic, solitary and sublime of settings.

Taking the bare details of their lives, gleaned from photographs of the Hydes and her own research, Michaels is as adept at imagining who Glen and Bessie were as she was in telling us her own story in her widely praised memoir, "Split: A Counterculture Childhood." It is, however, not the tangible facts but the breadth of her imagination and the psychological credibility of her characters that makes "Grand Ambition" such a brilliant success.

Glen, 30, is all reflex, a thoughtlessness born of necessity. Bessie, not quite 23, is a variation on the theme: Too creative not to be concerned about their future, she is nonetheless determined. It is a dynamic that allows Michaels to evoke beyond the pages of the book the connection between a man and a woman struggling with the need for autonomy and union, with the pain of loneliness and the responsibility of love.

Drifting during the day, camping at night against the narrow cliffs, the couple celebrates their honeymoon with brief interludes climbing from the deepening gorge into the middle of the desert. They make love on a plateau, their only witness a hawk circling above. They bathe in a fresh spring, and as the journey becomes more dangerous, the outline between them, their defined roles, begins to shifts. When does the will and desire of one accede to the will and desire of another? It is a question that brings them together and pulls them apart.

Set against the jazz-era prosperity of the '20s, a world alive to excess and heroism (Lindbergh's achievement just a year earlier is never far from these pages), it is a powerful drama that begins with Glen's father's desperate search for the lost couple and, in alternating chapters, follows Glen and Bessie as they drift unknowingly toward their doom, and the river, always the river, sets the pace as it plunges deeper and deeper through the Earth, gaining speed through fields of boulders and debris, through places where one's fears flare in proportion to another's courage or denial.

Michaels stunningly re-creates the terror: "Glen stood on tiptoe at the front of the scow, taking a quick look at the water, then he pulled quickly for his entry and hoped for the best. They tipped over the edge and hit a rock ... then swerved right into the thundering hole they desperately needed to miss. The scow went nose down, then pitched up a nearly vertical reverse wave and burst through, the bow raked out in the air, a wall of water crashing over them."

And she is equally adept writing about a deeper turbulence. When Glen challenges Bessie--"Then why the hell did you want to keep going?"--she pauses. "Because," she thinks, "she wanted to be what he saw in her." But this is too difficult to say. "Because I'm stupid," she resorts to. The greater courage, it turns out, is less physical bravura than simply the strength to face one's self.

Toward the end, caught in an eddy, circling in the backwash of a stretch of rapids, unable to break free, and with night falling, they decide to wait for daybreak to fight the current. In this stasis, they talk. First, it's music, the songs they know, then movies, then it's the more painful, more shameful story of the child Bessie lost before she met Glen.

In this moment of calm, their love shines through: "[A]s she talked, she felt him listening. His curiosity was like a shaft of light making its way down through leagues of water, fraying and opening so her thoughts rose up in answer, silky and strong. She had no more idea than he did where the story was leading, but with him listening like that she felt sure it would end somewhere."

Balzac called marriage "the most audacious of enterprises," and "Grand Ambition" is the most audacious of love stories for attempting to take us to a place most of us inhabit but perhaps can't describe and for suggesting what it takes for two people to live with one another without sacrificing their ideals or limiting their dreams.

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