Book Review

The friendships of our youth are preserved in the amber of nostalgia, those we drift apart from captured in the soft light of memory while we grow and twist away from that fixed point. In his sophomore novel, Thin Rising Vapors, Seth Rogoff describes the chaos that follows when we interrogate the stones upon which our own pasts are built, the relationships we’ve taken for granted, the human beings we were sure we knew. The result is a novel as disorienting as it is heartfelt, a work that calls into question how we think about the people who shaped us and how we should, in turn, view ourselves.

Abel Prager has killed himself with a handful of poisonous mushrooms, and has left his estate, a lakeside cabin in Casco, Maine, to an old friend. Ezra Stern receives word from Abel’s lawyer that he should be granted access to the cabin “without delay,” and hurriedly makes the drive from his urbane academic life in New York City, trailed along the way by the blizzard that will bury him in the cabin for seven days.

Having spent their formative summers as best friends at sleepaway camp, the two shared a dorm room in college and have remained in touch over the years. Ezra recalls, “From the first day, I had been drawn to him—pulled in by the force of mutual affection, or maybe by a blind desire to be near greatness of some indeterminable sort.” Abel’s genius propels him through college and quickly to an international stage, where his research into water infrastructure and conservation influences governments and leads to a string of successful books. He’s a powerful voice—but then he gives it all up to retire into the Maine woods. When a woman he’s seeing asks what he intends to do now, Abel alludes to searching for the hidden secrets of the world by quoting Henry David Thoreau. “I think the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by divining rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”

That the novel derives its title from a Thoreau quote won’t surprise readers when they come across this passage; the entire text is seeded with them. Rogoff manages to fertilize Thoreau’s words with his own, tenderly cultivating the ensuing bloom into thoughts and sentiments that reach beyond the original context, sprouting off shoots and stems of newly transcendent ideas for another generation of readers.

Alone in Abel’s cabin, Ezra approaches the mystery of what drove his friend to such a fate as any good historical scholar would: he consults the available primary sources. Even in adolescence Abel had been a prolific writer, especially of letters, which he hammered out on his grandfather’s antique Remington typewriter. Ezra digs into the mountain of journals and manuscripts left in the drawers of Abel’s desk, not realizing that in doing so he is summoning ghosts to the surface. For Thin Rising Vapors is, in essence, a ghost story.

Through Abel’s typewritten pages we trace the arc of childhood incidents that shape events across decades, gaining mass and momentum with each passing year. Part meditation, part family history, part manifesto, we read Abel’s journal alongside Ezra, in due time recoiling in horror, then leaning closer to measure the depths of its aching pathos.

Rogoff casts his characters’ lives through the various looking glasses of memory, memoir, and myth until none of the characters—and least of all the reader—can be sure of the details, only their profound importance. The facts remain shrouded, but the consequences pierce the dark, loud as a loon’s call, shattering moments of quiet reflection and startling narrator and reader alike into new states of understanding. There is vanity in thinking one knows another person, and Ezra must confront the unrecognizable heart of his closest friend in order to discover a new and deeper intimacy. It is here, in the gap between objective and subjective, rational and intuitive, that subtler truths emerge.

Such is Rogoff’s penchant for characterization that even inanimate objects in the cabin drip with personality: the Franklin stove Ezra feeds with the ritualistic attention of a priest every morning, the ghost-ridden Remington typewriter, an old Morehouse canoe paddle. Lovers, friends, shopkeepers, and long-dead relatives are all painted with attentive brushstrokes, endowed with the breath and vitality of a fully formed universe that continues to expand long after you put the book down.

Some passages quiver with the nuanced terror of a Shirley Jackson story; others recall Camus as characters muse philosophically toward abstraction. But across every page flow the carefully crafted sentences of a letter written to a childhood friend, the kind of missive certain people might choose to type on an old Remington in the quiet solitude of a lakeside cabin.

About the Reviewer

Duncan Whitmire is an author and ghostwriter whose work can be found in many forms, under several names, across the internet. His short stories and satire have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and Syntax & Salt Magazine. He lives in South Portland, Maine with his partner, kids, and Boston terrier.