The Last River Michael Burgin Book Lovers

book The Last River

reviewed by Michael Burgin

Published in Issue No. 42 ~ November, 2000

The success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm assured a man-made torrent of books in the suddenly lucrative “Man versus Nature, Nature Slams Man” genre. But, as Todd Balf’s new book shows, just because a work follows an industry trend, one needn’t assume the work unworthy. The author recounts the 1998 attempt of a competent, experienced whitewater paddling team to achieve a “first descent” down a portion of Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo river. Disaster ensues. The reader knows who isn’t coming back early on, and, for me, this revelation was a disservice, extracting from the story a degree of beneficial suspense. (Granted, Balf wasn’t trying to write a mystery, but any story, fiction of nonfiction, benefits when the reader turns the page urged on by a clamoring desire to see what happens next.) Nonetheless, Balf’s painstaking recreation of personalities and events leading up to and following the expedition kept me going in lieu of suspense. Balf has access to the entire team, and one appreciates the exhaustive anecdotal information he collects from those even obliquely involved. River may not transcend its story and attain the heights of Junger’s Storm, but, then again, even the Everest of rivers can hardly compare to the Atlantic ocean for encompassing dramatic potential. Ultimately, The Last River proves a meritorious addition to those tales reminding one just how fragile the most prepared and capable man is when facing the merest shrug of nature.

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Living in Nashville, TN, Michael Burgin edits for a monthly business magazine and annotates television scripts for syndication abroad. He likes writing bios in which he talks about himself in the third person.