College friends Caroline Price and Audrey Sutter embark on a road trip in their RAV4, a three-hour ride north from Audrey's hometown. The young women drive out of day into night, and out of cotton country. Audrey thinks of her dad, an ex-sheriff and the list of things left unsaid. The opening chapters capture a moment perfectly constructed to capture the confusion of life-changing news, those moments when the roof blows off our well-organized lives. There's a miscalculation, an accident. Over the edge of the river the car goes. As it drops nose-first toward the black surface of the river, Audrey and Caroline discover a dark chill that is "too incredible to imagine."
The Current is about sympathetic people plunged into tragic circumstances. Johnston brings a depth of emotion and understanding to his characters--primarily Gordon Burke, who visits Eileen Lindeman and tells her the story about the accident the night before, about the two young women in a car just across the border in Iowa. One of the two was local. Hearing his name in the news again alongside Audrey's name opens a crack of memory, "of old misery" in Gordon's heart.
There's a glaring question of a second vehicle and the question of possible foul play. Suddenly alone for the first time in years, Gordon is faced with the past and what really happened to Holly, his precious daughter who was murdered. Audrey survived the river but has no knowledge of the truck that bumped her and sent her and Caroline down the bank. She tells the current Sheriff Edward Moran about the boy who pressed her against the wall with his hand over her mouth: "I'd think I'd know them Sheriff, I'm pretty sure I would."
Moving from the present to the past, Johnston lays the foundations for the mysteries of Holly's death and Caroline and Audrey's plunge into the river. Audrey remembers Holly, but she also knows that Moran did not find her killer or has any evidence that prime suspect Danny Young was responsible. The now-retired sheriff, Tom Sutter, who failed to close the case now thinks of Gordon Burke and the pain in his eyes. Tom thinks of Danny, back when he was Gordon's daughter's age. Danny's mother, Rachel, is in her living room chair writing a letter to one of her two sons when she hears about Audrey's accident. Her heart flies immediately to Gordon, who she has known well for so many years. She thinks of Gordon's ex-wife, with whom she was once close.
Johnston lays out the cornerstones of the lives that Gordon, Audrey and Danny will construct in the accident's aftermath. It's easy to forget the cracks that appear in the foundations of Rachel Young's carefully calibrated life. With Danny still a suspect in Holly's death, Audrey discovers that the intimacy of a long friendship equips her to finally put together her memories of the man they had gone to see that day at his house in the woods. Holly Burke was a high schooler walking home who had been beaten up or hit by a car ten years ago. No one talked about that anymore, "or at least not in front of Audrey they didn't."
The tone of The Current is perhaps Johnston's most delicate accomplishment. This is a tragedy, a grief-steeped novel that often feels like a funeral dirge as it ebbs and flows with the energy of the author's sensitivity to the abiding mysteries of human desire. Danny sees that night again: the road winding through the dark woods, the boughs that dipped and swayed. The slow tumble of flakes lands cold on his face. Water is an important symbol, from the fishy, muddy smell of a river and Holly Burke's wet hair to the "trapped air in the white bag that escapes like breath when they unzip it."
Though he understands the aspirations of his characters, Johnston is just as perceptive when it comes to the story's essential mysteries--who actually killed Holly and, later, Caroline. Men prowl around the edges of the story, convinced of their pure righteousness and angst. Despite its grim subject matter and slow pacing, this is a novel about the persistence of life and the agonizing but clarifying effect of great loss. Even deep in the grip of a great and deadly defined current, Johnston suggests, there's still time to begin again.