The Flood of ’64

David Long’s THE FLOOD OF ’64 is made up of tales which take place in a variety of times and situations, yet the common emphasis on personal relations draws the stories into a cohesive whole. In “Clearance,” a man makes a solitary camping trip to gain perspective on his troubled marriage. As he rehashes the situation, a light plane passing overhead diverts his attention. He feels a flash of envy for the successful, carefree people he imagines are on board. Moments later, however, the craft crashes into a mountain slope. He makes his way laboriously to the plane to find the two occupants--significantly, a man and a woman--dead. Although the moral, that tragedy can teach us to appreciate more what we have, is an old one, Long renders the tale movingly and absorbingly.

The title story, which also turns on a shaky marriage, is narrated alternately by Carl and Carla, brother and sister, who recount their experiences in the Montana flood of 1964. As newly appointed sheriff, Carl feels he must “prove” himself in this, his first emergency. Unhappily married Carla has a lover, Benjamin, who kills her husband on a lonely stretch of road as the flood waters rise. The two narratives merge when Carl investigates the death and intuitively realizes what has happened. Family feeling overcoming his ambition to be a “good” sheriff, Carl promptly and quietly has his brother-in-law’s corpse cremated.

The bulk of the book is taken up by “The Oriental Limited” which, set in 1924 Chicago, is the only story without a Montana locale. The story tells of the clueless disappearance of a meek young woman’s two brothers and how this traumatic event later contributes to her own, more calculated “disappearance.”

Unusually, Long can write convincingly from either a man or woman’s point of view. Whether male or female, his characters share a deadpan desperation, and much of their tragedy is that they do not recognize their own feelings of helplessness. Long’s plotting is adroit and his storytelling entertaining, although marred sometimes by overdone nostalgia (as in “Great Blue”) and by a distracting slanginess.