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Book Notes: A thriller that finds hope in bleakness in ‘Long Bright River’

Rae Padilla Francoeur
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"Long Bright River"

“Long Bright River” by Liz Moore. Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House imprint). 2020. $26. 492 pages.

“Long Bright River” by Liz Moore is a rare treat. A thriller by definition, it is much more. But thriller it is - the kind readers celebrate and critics regale with high marks and plenty of superlatives.

Mickey, a 13-year police veteran in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Kensington, couldn’t be more disadvantaged. She is a struggling single mom managing both a demanding job as a cop and a dismissive male boss. Those are her top-tier challenges. Add to that the fact that her mother died of an overdose when she was 4, the grandmother who raised her remains angry and resentful, and the mentor who saw her through her tough childhood turns out to be a sexual predator. Her father, addicted himself, disappears after her mother ODs.

For a good portion of the story, Mickey, only in her early 30’s, conducts a desperate hunt for her addicted, younger sister Kacey. She makes errors in judgment in this search, leading to an internal investigation and a lengthy suspension. Of course Mickey is sleepless with worry. Four young women - addicts and/or sex workers - turn up murdered and Kacey has vanished.

Addiction is the common denominator in this novel, and we learn about it from several points of view including that of jaded law enforcement, the despairing addicts, the pushers who conspire in the maintenance of the addiction to ensure income, and the loved ones whose grief and frustration are heartbreaking to witness. Kacey faces down her addiction repeatedly. The first time she dies of an overdose, Mickey is there to save her. There are repeat episodes. And a lessening of will to do anything but succumb to the inevitable.

“None of them wanted to be saved,” says Mickey after reviving Kacey with naloxone. “They all want to sink backward toward the earth again, to be swallowed by the ground, to keep sleeping. There is hatred on their faces when they are roused from the dead.”

As bleak as the situation is, the author finds ways to present a case for hope. She’s a fine writer and storyteller, too, who, when we least expect it, comes up with stunning and wholly authentic twists.

Gee, the grandmother that raised Mickey and her younger sister, lost all hope after her own daughter died of an overdose. Mickey feels lucky because she had time with her mother before addiction obliterated her parenting instincts. Kacey, on the other hand, barely knew her mother and was born addicted. To support herself and her habit, Kacey becomes a sex worker.

In one year in Kensington, there are 900 opioid overdoses. “Fresh one?” a cop asks as he and Mickey’s cohorts approach yet another dead body. The dead become separated from their humanity due to the sheer number of incidences. They’re often found “out in the open” as if just “having nodded off forever.” Mickey says, “They’re cold to the touch, even in summer.” The body count builds. In this story, the victims of addiction are also the victims of murder that Mickey must solve to find out what happens to Kacey.

Of great interest to me was Moore’s wrenching portrayal of Mickey’s life as a single mom with few resources and a boss who openly disrespects her. I suspect this portrayal will be familiar to many women who have had to leave their children with unfit sitters or swallow their pride when a boss berates them. The impoverished, with so many challenges to confront on a daily basis, are among the most ingenious. If only their creativity could be harnessed for other purposes than survival.

“Long Bright River” is a contemporary period piece about opioid addiction and a bereft society that does not have the bandwidth to provide the basics for those with few advantages. The story may be dark but it is true, stark and free of dramatic embellishments. It is also a deft thriller, written in a tough, noir tone that keeps readers in a state of wary anticipation.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at rae@raefrancoeur.com.