Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

This River: A Memoir
[Excerpt + Reviews]

by James Brown

• Award-winning author James Brown gained a cult following after chronicling his turbulent childhood and spiraling drug addiction in The Los Angeles Diaries. This River picks up where Brown left off in his first memoir, describing his tenuous relationship with sobriety, telling of agonizing relapses, and tracking his attempts to become a better father.

—From the publisher’s description (Counterpoint, 2011)

• Read a chapter: “Some Kind of Animal”

Drugs, Alcohol and Literature, the author’s website, offers an extensive list of resources, including links to CNN and LA Times interviews of Brown, plus his YouTube talks on addiction, and more.

Selected Reviews

James Brown has shaped from the English language something rather different: an exacting, muscular prose both tender and unforgiving, rigorously concise in its refusal to dilute the darkest realities and yet capacious and nuanced in its pursuit of redemption and familial love. He is one of our most accomplished writers, and this brilliant memoir is among the finest of its kind.

—B.H. Fairchild, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, and National Book Award Finalist for The Art of the Lathe

A beautifully crafted and intensely moving book. Without artifice or pretension—without false moves of any sort—James Brown goes after the biggest literary game: death, love, children, degeneration, hopelessness, hope. I read this book straight through, in one spellbound sitting, and I will read it again in a week or two. It is so good.

—Tim O’Brien, National Book Award–winning author of The Things They Carried

As I was reading James Brown’s new book, This River, I thought, I did not know anybody wrote like this anymore. At any moment, my breath shortening, I thought the page would combust and explode in my hands. Not just for what I was being told, but also for the way of the telling, for how tightly crafted, limpid, economical the sentences. The way they build power and come from beneath, the way they disappear inside your mind and become your mind in seamless transport.

There are few artists who have loitered at the gates of hell and maintained their craft. Few artists who have given in to the demons and returned to tell about it. The journey empties them and the demons destroy them and what they have learned and we need to know is forever lost to us. Well, here is one of them where that is not so.

I am immediately reminded of William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness and John Berryman’s Recovery. Both are famous and important books, but neither is so self-lacerating, so honest, so truthful as Jim’s book. Neither demands so much of the reader and knows the reader is willing for the more and not the less. Neither is so inside out. Neither gives so much and gives again.

Sometimes a way to gauge the quality of a creation is to think about what it took, what was overcome, what price it extracted. In this case, the proof is in your hands. This River is raw and palpable and beats like a heart. Brown gave everything he had: infinite strength, exacting discipline, fearsome courage...When you put this book down, trust me, you will think about it for a long time.

—Robert Olmstead, author of the national bestseller, Coal Black Horse, and winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury