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A Seed of Anxiety

Seeing what's Down in the River with Ryan Blacketter

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For much of his life, 44-year-old author Ryan Blacketter resided in both Idaho and Oregon. He isn't a wealthy tycoon who jetted from one city to the other on a whim; for Blacketter, moves from Boise to Portland, Ore., and back again were often grass-is-always-greener motivated. In Boise, he might miss Portland's high energy and tire of Idaho's conservative atmosphere. In Portland, he might pine for the City of Trees' affability and grow weary of an "ultra-cool" vibe cultivated in the City of Roses--"If somebody finds out you ate at McDonald's, they'll flip; maybe even yell at you in public," Blacketter said.

Now living in Boise, Blacketter has put some of that restlessness on paper with his debut novel, Down in the River (2014, Slant Books). His 16-year-old protagonist, Lyle, has also called both Idaho and Oregon home. When he leaves, however, it's for much different reasons.

When Lyle's twin sister Lila commits suicide, his religious, older brother Craig forbids mention of her name, angry that she "brought hell into our home."

Conflicted, angry and devastated by the loss of his twin, Lyle stops taking the medication for his bipolar disorder and sets out on a quest of self-discovery that is both stygian and enlightening. He gravitates to the shady "margins of youth culture," and commits some gruesome acts that are objectively shocking but not out of character for Lyle.

Like Lyle, Blacketter grew up in the Gem State, and he said Idaho is "very foundational" for him. Blacketter's father was a parole officer/counselor, and worked at the Old Idaho Penitentiary in the 1970s, until the riots that led to the Pen's closing, after which the family moved to Cottonwood and then Lewiston. Like Idaho, his father's career in the corrections industry may have contributed to the groundwork of Down in the River. Early on in the writing process, Blacketter decided Lyle's actions would eventually lead to the boy's own experience with the correctional system, albeit as a juvenile. Blacketter even did some boots-on-the-ground research: He sought out and received a grant to teach a weeklong fiction workshop to inmates in Cottonwood.

Blacketter began writing Down in the River in 2006. But the seeds of the story were planted long before.

"One story I've talked about a lot lately," Blacketter said with a small laugh, "is about my friend ... I was 13, he was 16 and he went away. I didn't see him for [a few years]."

Later, when Blacketter was about 19 years old and in Portland for a short visit, he ran into his old friend.

"He'd just gotten back from New York City. His hair was bleached super-white blonde, he had on a T-shirt with a man screaming on it. There was some kind of polish, some kind of ultra-coolness about him," said Blacketter. "I just knew I couldn't relate to him anymore. Then he said he was going to rob a mausoleum."

And he did. Blacketter said the robbery wasn't about "stealing gold teeth," but was a way for this ex-friend, who had "lost any childlike sense of wonder we used to have when we were kids," to initiate himself into a crowd of "ultra-cool, underground oddballs ... who were romantic to him."

News of the robbery disturbed Blacketter, who himself suffers from a mild form of bipolar disorder, and planted in him "a seed of anxiety." The story stayed with him and he always knew he wanted to use it somehow. And though he wrote other works before Down in the River, it wasn't until he began writing the book in 2006 that he brushed the cobwebs off the mausoleum story and it became the underpinning of Down in the River.

Though horrific, Down in the River is not a horror story. Its shocking incidences draw their power from their plausibility, rather than any supernatural or mystical element. Blacketter wanted his story to be convincing and by making Lyle a teenager with a mental illness, Blacketter lent gravitas and believability to Lyle's actions, many of which would be difficult to reconcile with an adult protagonist.

While a book with themes of mental illness, youth culture, religion and the correctional system could be adopted by any number of causes or groups and waved as a flag for awareness, Down in the River is not a statement. It is a concise, taut, coming-of-age story that is easy to read because it's deeply engaging and difficult to absorb because the character with whom readers will sympathize seems to be sealing his fate at each turn.

Down in the River is also a well-written debut novel that has garnered its author some attention and high praise: Blacketter was interviewed by Paste Magazine for an upcoming article in its "Drinks With..." series, and Fiction Writers Review described Down in the River as "Dark and grisly, it's a novel that holds both popular appeal and deeper intellectual pleasures, one you can recommend to friends who read only an occasional Stephen King novel or those who read the most lauded literary fiction," adding that what is at the crux of the novel "is as ghastly and morbid as anything Poe thought up."