Coming Home Is Anything but Easy in This ‘Millennial Noir’

ALL THE WATER I’VE SEEN IS RUNNING
By Elias Rodriques

The longer you’re gone, the slipperier coming home gets. To reconcile the person you’ve become with the one old friends remember is as easy as telling the tide not to rise.

This dilemma lies at the core of Elias Rodriques’s poignant debut novel, “All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running.” After seven years away, Daniel has come back to Palm Coast, Fla., where he fell in love with his high school flame, Aubrey. It is her death that has impelled his return.

The Aubrey he knew was into drinking, mud racing and hunting, a “dark-haired white girl” whose father had made viciously clear what he thought of his daughter driving around with a Black boy. In spite of disparate interests and backgrounds, Daniel, Aubrey and their friends shared one dream: to get out of Palm Coast.

Compounding Daniel’s grief is the mystery surrounding the drunk-driving accident that killed Aubrey. Driven by shame and lingering first-love ardor, he wants to know why Aubrey was riding home with Brandon, her ex-boyfriend and a “self-avowed redneck.”

While the trip begins with the homecoming rituals of reminiscing over beers and enduring off-color jokes, the novel turns into an unexpected and inventive strain of what one might call millennial noir. With Daniel, Rodriques reimagines the traditional tight-lipped detective who’s at the mercy of an unjust world, infusing both the malaise and sociopolitical concerns of his generation into a novel built on other noir staples, such as an inciting tragedy, flashbacks and women punished by fate for their strength.

The town of Palm Coast — with its sunny beaches, barefaced racism and economic atrophy — serves as the backdrop for Daniel’s hunt for answers. The threat of violence looms throughout and erupts into inglorious brawls. A motley cast is sourced from his high school track team, split down racial lines, with his Black friends Desmond and Egypt as sprinters, and Twig and other white teammates as long-distance runners.

Each of Daniel’s interactions adds to a portrait of modern resignation while providing sly revelations that whisk the plot forward. Between these reunions come brief flashbacks, spanning generations in Jamaica to glimpses of African folklore and Daniel’s upbringing in Kingston, Brooklyn and Palm Coast.

In some ways, Daniel embodies the noir antihero. He is aloof and cynical, and harbors a dark secret that ratchets up the suspense as much as his own investigation into Aubrey’s past does. Yet his character defies easy molds. The term “intersectionality” hardly does justice to the cat’s cradle of his demographic markers and traumas. He is queer, a survivor of abuse, a mixed-race Jamaican immigrant with a family history marred by enslavement, exploitation and incarceration. And, in a subversive twist to noir machismo, he is repeatedly rescued by the women in his life, often thanks to implausibly serendipitous interventions.

Rodriques’s prose is as measured as it is nuanced. This gradually comes to seem less a stylistic choice than a means of survival for his protagonist: It isn’t until we meet Desmond that Daniel’s grip on language and self-modulation eases. After a day of drinking with Twig and a visit to his grandmother, Daniel reunites with Desmond, who agrees to accompany him to confront Brandon. As they drive deeper into the ominous swamplands, the solace and understanding of a fellow Black man begin to coax Daniel into letting down his guard — even after Desmond offers him a revolver for the showdown.

This and later scenes of dialogue with Desmond make for the novel’s strongest moments. As the two friends exchange hip-hop references, unsentimental confessions and ideas for “all-Black heaven,” the familiar flow and biting wit of their banter help Daniel accept the inalterable nature of the past.

But toward the end, there’s an abrupt shift to a new narrator who suggests that Daniel and Desmond still lack “the good sense to figure out what questions they need to ask to learn what they don’t know.” This removed perspective undermines the characters’ growth, along with virtues like resolve and hope. In keeping with noir cues — and a disillusioned generation — the future remains uncertain, beyond their control, subject only to forces as mutable as the Florida coastline.

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