Bruce Burrows, The River Killers

I picked up Bruce Burrows’ The River Killers several years ago, though I’m no longer sure where or when. The “why,” though, is clear: it’s hardcore West Coast writing, by a writer who’s so West Coast that he probably … well, make up your own proverb.

But I didn’t start reading it at the time, partly because it would’ve arrived during a years-long busy cycle for me, but also because I saw warning signs. For some readers, ones with fishing backgrounds, the ones that Burrows would actually want as readers, they might be badges of honour, but…..

“To the hardworking, dedicated people at DFO [Canada’s federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans] who do not deserve the disparagement expressed in this book, both of you have my deepest sympathy.”

That’s from the novel’s dedication, obviously.

DFO has had a shocking record in all kinds of respects, with declines and collapses in virtually every fishery they’ve ever managed; this applies not just to the fish, of course, but to the humans who’ve spent their lives chasing those same fish. Dean Bavington’s methodical, magisterial Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse lays out DFO’s failings more clearly than almost any other researcher (though not as succinctly or colourfully as would many a fisher), and I’m firmly on Team Bavington.

But as I’m sure Bavington would admit, and as researchers like Daniel Pauly would certainly argue, the oceans are faced with troubles far deeper than DFO could ever be equipped to handle. Their job is basically impossible, as Burrows unwillingly depicts, what with the impenetrably complex ocean ecosystems involved, which for the big-money species (salmon!) involves freshwater spawning against a primarily oceangoing lifecycle; with the constant political infighting, meddling, and posturing; and with the power and rapaciousness of large-scale industry players.

DFO wishes they were heroes, and the fish they manage (“manage”) need some human heroes, but that’s demonstrably never been who DFO have been. Burrows is in great company as a DFO hater, and that’s fine. It’s just that things are complicated, wildly so, and in this essay I will….

But I should probably get to the book, especially because in actual fact, I don’t want to say very much about it.

In short: Burrows’ novel The River Killers uses a claustrophobically narrow set of characters, via a clanging chain of deeply improbable plot details, to depict a decades-long secret DFO scheme to engineer transgenic sockeye salmon that would spawn in salt water, thus enabling the economic exploitation of river systems that would no longer have to be reserved for the use of salmon. Overlaid onto, or possibly buried within, these DFO activities, Burrows’ narrator is tracing the mysterious disappearance of a former fishing colleague, which is followed by a few mysterious murders. Who dun it? Who dun WHAT? And why?

DFO has done terrible things terribly, as Bavington and many others have documented, and I’d read the heck out of many a novel that’d believably cover their sins, especially one that feels like an exposé or roman à clef. The fishing industry could be the setting or backdrop or foregound for a huge number of BC-inflected novels, because both the work (and workers) and the creatures are hugely fascinating: politics, capitalism, labour, unique characters, environmentalism, glamour species, governmental failures, I mean COME ON, write it and TAKE MY MONEY.

But instead of a novel like that, The River Killers gives us a world where DFO tries to develop transgenic salmon that’d spawn in salt water, thus freeing up rivers for industrial exploitation.

And the case is nominally being investigated by a hot young female RCMP officer, but really it’s under the control of the narrator, who’s a DFO employee and former fisherman she starts sleeping with in the middle of the investigation.

The case involves DFO’s Assistant Deputy Minister, too, the second-highest non-elected position in a ministry employing 14,000 people and with a budget roughly $4 billion; naturally, it’s being investigated by one young RCMP officer and one detective at the Vancouver Police Department, with zero senior oversight. Also naturally, they don’t bother notifying their higher-ups, and never seem even to consider doing to.

It’s almost like Burrows’ loathing of DFO is so complete that he doesn’t feel any need for plot realism in an otherwise intensely realist novel. There are maps, and GPS coordinates, and detailed descriptions of how to drop and collect nets for salmon and for herring (which need to be handled completely differently). Part of the novel’s set in Heiltsuk territory, and Bella Bella feels very much the way it does in books from around the same time by (for example) Arlo Kopecky and John Zada. The novel has an utterly realist grounding, in many respects, and I’m absolutely here for that.

Except that almost nothing is realistic about the actual plot, so I just can’t even (if I can 2018 for a minute). And this disjunction hurts me right in the feels (if I can 2023).

As I said when commenting on Burrows’ second novel, The Fourth Betrayal, I’m really pleased that BC’s own Touchwood Editions has remained a going concern. Collectively, cultural productions represent a genuine driver within the larger economy, and the money should get splashed around locally rather than vacuumed out by multinationals. I’m glad local stories get told, and as a result, I’m glad Touchwood has had the capacity to put some money into the hands of writers like Bruce Burrows, even if writers remain desperately under-compensated in BC (and everywhere else!).

So what if it’s not the novel I want. I’m 100% confident that I’m not the reader he wants, either. It’s been 25 years since I worked on policy for the BC Conservation Officers Service and for this province’s Oil and Gas Commission, but the stink of bureaucracy never really leaves you, and it’s not going to get rinsed clean by 20 years as a professor. Bruce Burrows and his readers will be just fine without me and my griping. Who knows: maybe my griping will be another badge for him.

I’ll close with my closing thoughts on Burrows’ second book, because why not:

“My sense is that Bruce Burrows, if given enough time, which really means enough money, could’ve written a much more complex book than The Fourth Betrayal [or, in this csae, than The River Killers], and I think I might’ve fallen hard for that one. I’ve been trying to imagine it, in amongst the pages actually in front of me, but that’s not what I found myself actually reading.

“Wow, do I hate writing negative reviews. I’m glad some other readers liked it, because I’d like Burrows to keep writing stories that speak to those of us living on BC’s west coast.”


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