The story of Dick Conant, an American folk hero who, over the course of more than 20 years, solo canoed thousands of miles of American rivers—and then in 2016 disappeared off the coast of North Carolina.
If the missing-person element provides the current that sweeps Riverman forward, the book amounts to much more: a portrait of forgotten American byways and the eccentric characters who populate them, a cursory history of river travel in America and, not least, an effort to solve the riddle of Conant himself — not only his whereabouts but also his elusive and irresistible nature. As a chronicle of perseverance and inchoate questing, this quietly profound book belongs on the shelf next to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild ... A second book runs beneath the surface of Riverman like an undercurrent, and hints at the reasons McGrath is so drawn to Conant’s story. In an age 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 ... McGrath sets all of this down in prose that is poised and elegant, almost circumspect. When his personality does poke irrepressibly through, the effect is unexpected and delightful ... Mostly, though, and to his credit, McGrath has the good sense to stay in the shadows, to ensure that the main personality on the page belongs to Conant. And what a personality it is. In his quoted journal passages, Conant has a strong and distinctive voice ... In one sense McGrath never solves the mystery that opens his book: He doesn’t recover the body. But he does something at least as impressive from a journalistic perspective: He recovers the person, and he restores him to life on the page.
Mr. McGrath knew a good story when he saw it. He had stumbled upon an archetypal American outsider, a brilliant, sociable, sensitive misfit whose journeys harked back to America’s early romance with rivers ... Mr. McGrath captures his subject with warmth and humor ... Although Mr. McGrath is unable to find answers to all his questions, his book is a tenacious, entertaining feat of narrative nonfiction that owes much to John McPhee’s splendid chronicles of peripatetic Americans ... A worthy addition to the literature of American restlessness.
Fascinating ... The glimpses of McGrath's life makes the book into a diptych depicting American manhood ... Riverman is rich with detail about small-town America, those little communities that have made their livings off the commerce generated by waterways. Embedded in the narrative, however, are multiple anecdotes about the ways that class intersects with the picture ... But unspoken in McGrath's story are issues of race and gender. I'm a woman who has spent much of her life participating in outdoor recreation; it is hard to imagine how less free a woman or a person of color would be to show up in town after town as a lone traveler ... For men like Conant, the domestic life, the settled life, was impossible. And despite his own success, one senses that McGrath, too, wishes to feel the freedom he sees in Conant's itinerant journey. What emerges is a story that wends its way through the fluid state of American masculinity in our tumultuous times.