Tim Johnston wastes no time in setting the scene. The opening sequence of his new thriller, The Current, introduces college roommates Caroline Price and Audrey Sutter, who take a road trip to visit Audrey’s ailing father in Minnesota. At a gas station, they are assaulted by two men but manage to escape. Then they are overtaken by a truck that pushes their car down a steep bank into a freezing river, killing Caroline and leaving Audrey hypothermic and broken in a Rochester hospital. That action takes a mere twenty pages.
As the investigation begins, Johnston slows the pace, allowing his story to deepen. This deadly attack dredges up memories of a similar tragedy ten years earlier, when another young woman, Holly Burke, was thrown into the same river. Evidence from the prior murder pointed to one man, Danny Young, a childhood friend of the deceased who was spotted at the crime scene and who fled to the woods the same night. Locals interpreted his retreat as a confession, even after the sheriff failed to make a prosecutable case against him. Danny returns to town shortly after the second fatal assault, a coincidence that evokes violent reactions.
The overlaps between the cases run deeper than the similarity of women being shoved into the icy Black Root River. The victims of both murders are headstrong women attacked at night, leaving behind bereft fathers and shocked communities who want scapegoats to re-establish their sense of civic order. The sheriff who attempted to pin Holly Burke’s death on Danny is Tom Sutter, Audrey’s dying father. Retired from the force, he seeks retribution for his daughter’s suffering. Sutter knows that his time is limited and isn’t going to let due process enable another bad guy to elude justice.
Much of Johnston’s roving narration, which shifts focus among a half-dozen major characters, details the asymmetrical agony of watching children suffer. Parents endure all their children’s pain, plus the torture of knowing they can do little to alleviate it. Gordon Burke felt such bitterness about Sheriff Sutter’s failure to lock up his daughter’s killer that he secretly wished harm on Sutter’s own daughter. After Audrey’s hospitalization and her friend’s death, Burke and Sutter make amends over their shared sorrow. Gordon comes to see Audrey as a reflection of Holly, and before long his resentment has completely transformed into protectiveness.
In Gordon Burke, Johnston captures what a father can become when the unthinkable happens. Burke tells Sutter that, among his maelstrom of emotions after losing Holly, “grief is just about the smallest part of it.” His entire identity has been destroyed, a fate Caroline’s father faces now. “That man down in Georgia,” Burke says to Sutter, “that girl’s father? Hell, he ain’t even the same man anymore, Sheriff. He’s already some other man.”
The Current paints a mixed picture of this rural community, a combination of neighborly kindness and seething malice. The town comes to the aid of Rachel Young when her husband passes away, helping her raise her two young sons, but those same people later turn violent when Danny dares to visit his mother. Suspicion and counter-suspicion are rife. Two parents join forces when they both start to believe they know who is behind the killings, but they struggle to trust each other.
An atmosphere of violence pervades the story, with characters responding to insults with casual threats. “I think I could kill a son of a bitch if I got the chance,” one says. In the absence of Sheriff Sutter, the community loses its moral center, but new heroes emerge, in the least likely places.
Johnston, a prize-winning writer and former Memphis resident, displays an impressive literary arsenal, especially his finesse in capturing the operations of his characters’ minds. He has a knack, too, for depicting the complex trigonometry of desire. The Current is a mystery with the spinal cord of a bildungsroman, and it asks a disturbing question: who gets to grow up, and who stays in the icy river, frozen forever at nineteen?
[To read an excerpt from The Current, click here.]
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches English in Nashville.