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Publisher's Summary

Riverman: An American Odyssey uncovers the story of an extraordinary man and his puzzling disappearance, and paints a picture of the singular spirit of America’s riverbank towns. 

‘The peace of mind I found, largely alone, on that white-water mecca convinced me that life was capable of exquisite pleasure and undefined meaning deep in the face of failure. The experience itself is the reward.’ (Dick Conant)

On his 43rd birthday, Dick Conant, a golden boy who never quite grew up as those around him expected, stepped into a homemade boat to embark on a journey despite a gathering snowstorm. Among his possessions was a Gideon Bible and biographies of Einstein and Bismark. It was the beginning of an all-consuming odyssey by an unconventional man into the watery arteries of America, a journey to the unreported margins of society. He was to spend the next 20 years canoeing thousands of miles of rivers and their innumerable smaller tributaries, from one end of the country to the other. ‘I can, and I will!’ he said. And then, in 2014, he disappeared.

Not long before Conant’s upturned canoe was found in a brackish North Carolina bay, Ben McGrath met Conant by chance as he paddled down the Hudson, headed for Florida. McGrath set out to find the people whose lives, like his own, had been touched by their encounter with the great river wanderer. Along the way, he meets eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells drawn straight from the pages of Mark Twain, a vast network of friends and acquaintances who would forever remember this brilliant and charming man even after a single meeting.

Riverman is the story of a restless soul who was as troubled as he was charismatic, a contemporary folk hero who slips the moorings of ordinary civilised life to tap into what Thoreau called ‘a yearning toward all wildness’. It is also a riveting portrait of an America we rarely see: a nation of unconventional characters, small river towns and long-forgotten waterways.

©2022 Ben McGrath (P)2022 Penguin Random House LLC

Critic Reviews

"This is a beautifully told and near-mythical tale of one man’s quest to find peace through communion with nature, and through perpetual motion. My heart was deeply stirred by Riverman, and by Ben McGrath’s brilliant, clear and humane storytelling. This one will stay with me for a long time." (Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love)

Riverman is as miraculous and hopeful as its protagonist, the Zelig of America’s waterways, Dick Conant. It’s a great book for people like me, who read Into the Wild but have shed our self-destructive wanderlust and settled into middle age. This book will make you want to buy a canoe and spend less time on Instagram" (Emma Straub)

"McGrath’s reconstruction of Dick Conant’s tangled career and yearning soul is so meticulous, so obsessive, that Conant comes to life on the page as vividly as any character in American literature. Conant wanted his story told. Here it is, in all its pathos and sheer unlikeliness. You will never see rivers and the towns on their banks the same way after reading Riverman. Ditto, I predict, for expansive, raggedy strangers." (William Finnegan)

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