WATERTOWN, Mass.—It might be a bit too glib or give the wrong impression to say that Aris Janigian’s newest novel, Riverbig (Heyday Books, 2008) is sour grapes, because the novel is impeccably well written with characterizations dead on their mark and craggy and worn as Sierra mountain stone. But neither would you recommend the book to someone depressed, unless they’re a glutton for fictional punishment.
Riverbig is Janigian’s sequel to his 2003 novel Bloodvine, which told the story of Fresno’s Armenian community, as seen through the eyes of Andy Demirjian and his rancorous half-brother Abe, both part of the WWII “Greatest Generation” of Armenian Americans.
Riverbig picks up the story just following World War II as Andy embarks on a new chapter in his life. He is a new father, and a California farmer and trucker desperately trying to make ends meet after a blood feud with his brother over their once-joint farm leaves him high and dry in the blazing sun.
The story goes forth from there and it would be indiscreet to give away any of the arduous details of Andy’s struggle against adversity. But what must be said about the tone and style of Janigian’s writing and characters is that they tell the real, gritty, and by and large weathered, untold story of an Armenian community never forgotten today in modern Californian Armenian culture—but also never really revered enough for their resilience
Riverbig is nothing less than one Armenian American’s Grapes of Wrath, and Andy Demirjian is Steinbeck’s Tom Joad. There’s also a visceral, seething anger beneath the surface of Janigian’s writing and in his characters’ thoughts—that like all things undulated in rage is beautiful and caustic at the same time.
At times, these perceptions are turned inward, unobtrusively but deliberately at post-Genocide Armenian culture, both in California and in general. Case in point: When Andy thinks to himself in the novel, “In one generation, the Armenians had turned from growling lions and wily foxes to poodles licking society’s boots. Of course, society had gotten shrewder.”
He also turns the Armenian mirror convexly upon concepts of everyday matriarchy when Janigian, through Andy, notes of an Armenian dowager: “This woman was like a meat grinder. He’d seen it before, how these mayrigs sit home doing kufte with their chubby hands while mentally they are digging tunnels, laying booby traps, intercepting messages and sending out others… Andy had known an untold number of Armenian men who never left home, who at 40 were coddled the same as when they were 6. They were scared of women on the one hand, and worshipped their mothers on the other: a weird combination.”
For myself, more than twice Riverbig struck me as the modern incarnation of the Javakhk and Georgian medieval epic known as the Amiran-Darejaniani, or “The story of Amiran, son of Darejan.”
In the poem, empowered by the highest god Ghmerti (later the name of the Christian deity), the hero Amiran combats a giant, and then in his hubris challenges Ghmerti himself to mortal combat.
In response to this insolence, Ghmerti punishes him in three stages: He fastens Amirani to a post driven deep in the earth; he buries him in chains under a mountain pass, which forms a cave-like dome over him; and for one night each year, the mountain opens to reveal Amirani suspended in the air, where any human may release him and usher in the end of the world. Inevitably, the mountain closes again—dramatically, as a consequence of the excessive talk of women.
In Riverbig, Janigian hangs himself suspended in mid-air for readers to release him and his angered characters’ souls, either in redemption of or rage at post-genocide Armenian American culture.
After reading it, which emotion Armenian Americans will choose to embrace is subjective. Regardless, the novel will incite chatter and provoke thought.
What personal chains Janigian may rip forth from in future novels is a question of suspense worth thinking about.