A second book runs like an undercurrent beneath the surface of ‘Riverman’, hinting at the reasons McGrath is so drawn to Conant’s story. At a time when everything is relentlessly online and the real world is increasingly mediated through screens, Conant and his canoe represent something slower and quieter, closer to nature. “In vain moments,” McGrath writes, “between conversations I look out the window at the broad Hudson, where barges slid back and forth in the distant channel, and I would come to think of our village of Piermont less as a satellite of the vast economic engine downstream than as part of a network of hundreds of small towns in an inside-out riparian: the United Riverbanks of Conant.”
McGrath likes that Conant doesn’t seem interested in publicity. He is socially sociable, an inveterate collector of people and experiences, but he remains indifferent to cultivating his own legend. That’s not to say he doesn’t keep extensive notes. McGrath’s research is supported by Conant’s impressive self-documentation: photographs, diaries, e-mails and letters, many of which are stored in closets in Montana and Utah. All of this gives McGrath a sure path to follow, and his efforts to retrace Conant’s steps amount to a sort of immersive journalism, inhabiting his world and worldview to understand his subject.
That world is not always a happy one. For all his logistical and physical abilities, Conant is also homeless and psychologically haunted, so concerned about the possibility of diabetes and gout that he charts his river routes to ensure he can find a VA hospital when he needs one. A brilliant student who chaired his junior high school and was named “picture perfect” in his yearbook, now lives mainly on pickled hot dogs. He hasn’t seen anyone in his large family for years. He craves human contact but avoids forming close bonds, always alert to “the faintest hint of a shudder or half-second hesitation” that might indicate that he has exhausted his welcome. He tells friends he still dreams of settling in and talks fervently about a sweetheart in the West, but McGrath’s efforts to track her down lead nowhere; it seems likely that she is more fantasy than flesh. Adrift in life, Conant appears to have floated himself on rivers, in part to escape a society in which he was seen “as a misfit rather than a rough-and-tumble charmer.”
“Well, I have to die of something. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind croaking on such a trip.’
Still, life as an affable river bum suits him well. Time and again in his reporting, McGrath finds people who fondly remember Conant after their brief encounters, who went out of their way to help him, and who describe the powerful effect he had on their imaginations. McGrath puts it all down in prose that is poised and elegant, almost circumspect. When his personality pervades unstoppably, the effect is unexpected and delightful, as with the wry parentheses that close this passage about Conant and the modern world: “If he had been born later, I thought he probably would have been blogging, or posting his artwork on Instagram, along with photos of cantilevered bridges and morning mist (#riverlife).”
Most of the time though, and to his credit, McGrath has the good sense to stay in the shadows, making sure the main personality is on Conant’s page. And what a personality it is. In his quoted diary entries, Conant has a strong and distinctive voice, befitting his persona as a quirky folk hero: “There is a fine line between a man of exceptional courage and a damned fool,” he writes on one occasion. About another: “Well, I have to die of something. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind croaking on such a trip.”