the current

THE CURRENT


Tim Johnston, whose breakout debut Descent was called “astonishing,” “dazzling,” and “unforgettable” by critics, returns with The Current, a tour de force about the indelible impact of a crime on the lives of innocent people.

In the dead of winter, outside a small Minnesota town, state troopers pull two young women and their car from the icy Black Root River. One is found downriver, drowned, while the other is found at the scene—half frozen but alive.

What happened was no accident, and news of the crime awakens the community’s memories of another young woman who lost her life in the same river ten years earlier,

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Tim Johnston, whose breakout debut Descent was called “astonishing,” “dazzling,” and “unforgettable” by critics, returns with The Current, a tour de force about the indelible impact of a crime on the lives of innocent people.

In the dead of winter, outside a small Minnesota town, state troopers pull two young women and their car from the icy Black Root River. One is found downriver, drowned, while the other is found at the scenehalf frozen but alive.

What happened was no accident, and news of the crime awakens the community’s memories of another young woman who lost her life in the same river ten years earlier, and whose killer may still live among them.

Determined to find answers, the surviving young woman soon realizes that she’s connected to the earlier unsolved case by more than just a river, and the deeper she plunges into her own investigation, the closer she comes to dangerous truths, and to the violence that simmers just below the surface of her hometown.

Grief, suspicion, the innocent and the guilty—all stir to life in this cold northern town where a young woman can come home, but still not be safe. Brilliantly plotted and unrelentingly propulsive, The Current is a beautifully realized story about the fragility of life, the power of the past, and the need, always, to fight back.

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  • Workman
  • Hardcover
  • January 2019
  • 416 Pages
  • 9781616206772

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$27.95

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About Tim Johnston

tim johnstonTim Johnston, a native of Iowa City, is the author of The Current and the New York Times bestseller Descent, as well as a young adult novel, Never So Green, and the story collection Irish Girl, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.

Praise

“Gripping as it is, Johnston’s masterful novel is worth lingering over—it soars above the constraints of a traditional thriller and pulls you deep into the secrets of a grief-stricken town.”People

“Johnston dazzled with his breakout thriller, Descent; his follow-up is a more ambitious page-turner, unpacking how a shocking murder impacts the denizens of a small Minnesota town as they weather suspicion, guilt, and grief.” Entertainment Weekly (The 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2019)

“Tim Johnston’s second novel, The Current, is even better than his first, which is saying something. He’s a terrific writer and definitely a name to watch.” —Dennis Lehane, author of Since We Fell

“Tim Johnston’s gripping second novel is much more than a skillfully constructed, beautifully written whodunit. It’s a subtle and lyrical acclamation of the heart and spirit of small-town America. The Current is not your conventional, frenetically paced page-turner, although it smolders with a brooding, slow-burn tension that nudges the reader forward, catching you up in the lives of the troubled solitaries at the book’s core.”Washington Independent Review of Books

“Pick up Tim Johnston’s suspenseful novel The Current and you risk finding yourself glued to your chair, eyes to the pages, no thought of attending to daily obligations. Johnston’s elegant, cinematic style takes us into the characters’ lives and history, problems and concerns. The book examines that horrifying moment when everything changes, the before and after when love, friendship, hopes and trust turn into dread, guilt, blame and grief.” Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Tim Johnston’s new novel, The Current, is an exceptional tale of suspicion and secrets—and a strong follow-up to his excellent 2015 book, Descent.” Cedar Rapids Gazette

“The author of Descent, returns with a tour de force about the indelible impact of a crime on the lives of innocent people.” The Wichita Eagle

“[An involving and layered thriller . . . Johnston’s prose is so lyrical you want to stop and read it again.” St. Paul Pioneer Press

“With The Current, Johnston presents readers with another slate of unforgettable characters.” The Missourian

“This novel is careful layer upon careful layer, as deceptively thick yet brutally delicate as winter ice itself. Johnston’s descriptions of people, places, grief, and loneliness are subtle and evocative; the minor plot about an aging dog becomes a rending portrait of the ravages of love. Indeed, for all its harsh observations about human nature, this novel has at its heart a strong belief that love, for all the pain it brings, is the one thing that truly saves us. An apt title that functions as a beautiful metaphor for all the secrets and emotions roiling beneath the surface of every human life.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“[An] outstanding thriller . . . Johnston imbues each character with believable motives. The nuanced plot delves deep into how a community—and surviving relatives—deal with the aftermath of a death.”Publishers Weekly (starred)

Excerpt

An hour later Radner pushed through the gray door and began to make his way to the truck, loose-legged and head down, his face shielded by the bill of his cap.

Sutter got out of the truck and shut the passenger door behind him, wondering at the strangeness of his own legs, calling it the time he’d spent sitting in the cold truck waiting and not his nerves, or his sickness. He saw Radner look up at the slam of the truck door. Saw his eyes under the bill when he saw him, and saw his gait change hardly at all as he kept on, hands in his jacket pockets. He stopped a few feet short of the truck, of Sutter, and stood taking him in, jacket first, then the face. Then the rest, down to his boots.

“I know you,” Radner said. “You’re the man had me looking under his hood today.”

In his breath cloud Sutter smelled the Seagram’s and 7. A smell and a taste from the old days, before she got him to give it up for good.

“But you weren’t wearing that jacket earlier,” Radner said, raising one forefinger in the air and wagging it at him. Playacting a man who would not be duped.

“Is this your truck?” Sutter said.

Radner lowered the finger. “What’s the trouble, Sheriff?” At the movement of Sutter’s arm he glanced down, then showed his hands. “I’m an unarmed man here, Sheriff.”

Sutter studied him. The hooded eyes. The smirking and almost girlish lips that wanted to be slapped. Sutter raised the gun. It was his father’s old .38 revolver. Now his. He stepped aside and gestured with it.

“I want you to shut up and place your hands on the fender of the truck.”

“What’s this about, Sheriff?”

“What did I just say?”

Radner regarded him blankly, drunkenly. Then he stepped forward and put his hands on the fender of the truck.

“Spread your feet.”

Radner spread his feet and Sutter patted him down. He fished the young man’s keys and phone from his jacket pockets and slid them into his own. He glanced at the door of the bar. If anyone else came out it changed everything.

“Put your hands behind your head and lace your fingers.”

Radner did so and Sutter gripped the fingers in his free hand and pocketed the .38. He pulled the bracelets from the hip pocket of his jeans and drew down Radner’s left wrist and cuffed it, then drew down the right and cuffed it to its fellow.

Radner was glancing around the lot. “Where’s that Ford of yours, Sheriff? With the Minnesota plates and no whattayacallit. Official insignia.”

“I won’t tell you again to shut up.”

Sutter opened the truck door and gave Radner a push and Radner got himself in and Sutter shut the door, then walked around to the driver’s side and got in. The smell of the young mechanic had already filled the cab: booze and grease and gasoline.

“Whatever this is—” Radner began, and Sutter struck him with the back of his hand.

Radner sat looking at his lap, tasting his lower lip with his tongue.

“You want to say anything else?” Sutter said. He saw Radner’s eyes go to the door of the glovebox. “It’s a short drive,” Sutter said. “It won’t kill you to keep that mouth shut till we get there.”

The truck started up, the wipers swept snow from the glass, but under the snow was a film of ice and he sat staring at it, his heart pounding—all that waiting and you never thought to scrape the windshield? He tried to crank down the window, but it was either frozen or didn’t work, and finally he reached under Radner’s legs for the metallic scraper, got out of the truck again and went quickly and foolishly at the ice, and with each scrape he saw more of the cab, more of Radner, and it was like the reveal on one of those lotto games, one of those scratch-and-play cards, only this one told you not what you’d won but what you’d lost.

He turned left out of the lot and drove down the road two blocks and turned right, and then right again, down a lampless road where the buildings were all dark and window-boarded and the lots had not been plowed, and he pulled into a lot where the only tracks in the snow were his own tiretracks going in and the tracks of his boots coming out and he followed these to the back of the building, a one-time machine shop, according to the faded signage, and pulled up alongside his sedan and parked the truck and killed the engine.

He turned to Radner, but Radner was looking out the ragged hole Sutter had scraped, and Sutter looked too: the flat, undisturbed snow of the lot, the dark old building. The snow that fell on everything with no prejudice and no sound whatsoever.

Christ—what are you doing?

Sutter got out of the truck and walked around with his eyes on Radner and opened the passenger door. “Get out.”

Radner stared at him. The smirk gone from his lips. His face shining. Then he looked away. As if not seeing Sutter was the same as Sutter not being there.

Sutter took him by the arm and pulled him stumbling from the cab. He walked him a few steps and turned him around again.

“Get on your knees.”

Radner did not. He said, “Sheriff, I’m not putting up any kind of resistance here.”

Sutter stepped behind him and put his boot to the backs of Radner’s knees, and down he went. He swatted the billcap from Radner’s head and took the cuffs in his hands and jerked up on them and leaned over until his face was near Radner’s right ear.

“Do you remember where you were three nights ago?”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Three nights ago—?”

“Tuesday night.”

Radner shook his head. “I got no idea. I swear. I coulda been anywhere.”

You weren’t anywhere, you were at the Shell station on County Road F24 and you were assaulting two young women with your buddy.”

“Hell I was.”

“How’d you get those scratches on your face?”

“At work. A tire blew up in my face.”

“You are full of shit.”

Radner shook his head again. “Swear to God, Sheriff. Ask any of them at work. Ask Toby, he was standing right there.”

Sutter’s heart was banging. He saw his own ragged breaths bursting white into the air. The empty lot, the old machine shop, the falling snow, all seemed to be turning in some sickly way. You can still drop this. Right now. You can get into that sedan and just drive away. Go talk to Toby . . .

“You watch the news?” he said.

“What?”

“Do you watch the news.”

“Yeah, sometimes.” Radner groaned. “Please, Sheriff, you are breakin my arms.”

“Do you know what happened to those two girls, after you ran them off the road down the riverbank?”

“I never did. I never ran nobody down no riverbank.”

“One died, Ryan, and the other one almost did. So guess where that leaves you and your buddy.”

You got the wrong man, Sheriff. You got the wrong man.”

“Assault, attempted rape, attempted murder on two counts, murder on one count.”

“All right,” Radner said, “so take me in. Haul me in, man. Let me talk to a real sheriff. Let me talk to a—” He howled. Sutter had raised the cuffs.

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“You know what.”

He shook his head. “I swear I don’t.”

“The backscratcher, Radner. Where is it?”

Radner craned his neck to look at him. Fear and pain in those dark eyes. “You’re crazy,” Radner said. “You’re just plain crazy. You better let me go before this gets any worse. I won’t say nothin. People make mistakes, I get that. I won’t go to the sheriff or nothin. You just go your way and I’ll go mine, how about that, huh? What’ve you got to lose?”

Sutter was silent. His breaths smoking. His heart slamming. He looked up at the sky. Slow tumble of flakes, landing cold on his face and melting. Faintly there was the fishy, muddy smell of a river . . . but any river would be frozen and you wouldn’t smell it, and then he understood that the smell came from Holly Burke—from her wet hair, from the air trapped in the
white bag and escaping like breath when they unzipped it.

Essay

After the divorce, it was settled that my little sister would live mostly with my mother, while my two older brothers and I would live mostly with our father.

A lawyer himself, our father, tasked all at once with the rearing of three unruly boys, naturally fell back on what he knew, and as a result my brothers and I were exposed at an early age to the principles, and often the consequences, of due process. To what extent this parenting style shaped the adults we became is inconclusive: one son would grow up to become a lawyer as well, while another, taking an alternate path, would often need his brother’s services. No judgment here. Just the facts.

The youngest son would follow a third path altogether, becoming a writer of stories and novels. And while it’s true that the writer this boy became would be motivated by many of the themes and ideas of his upbringing—themes of guilt and innocence, for instance; ideas of perception and reasonable doubt, which are the qualifiers that make absolute fact, or objective truth, seem entirely impossible the moment the wheels of justice are set in motion—there was little evidence at the time that the boy was taking these concepts to heart. Or even that he recognized them when they were playing out before his very eyes.

Take, for example, the incident of the pulled fire alarm.

I was in middle school, and my friend Randy B and I were skipping second period, wandering the empty halls, when he dared me to pull the fire alarm. That is: he dared me to pretend to pull it. To put my hand on the little red handle as though I were going to pull it.

Not much of a dare, as dares go, except that we were standing just around the corner from the principal’s office, and that made it juicy. That made it irresistible.

The little red handle seemed to hum when I gripped it, like something alive. It wanted me to test it, to see how fixed it was, how resistant to pulling. And so I leaned back a bit, and I turned to give Randy a look, a smirk of victory—and was suddenly sitting on the floor. The alarm was blaring like the end of the world, and Randy, pausing just long enough to lock his eyes on mine, turned and flung himself toward the exit.

In those first stunned, surreal seconds, my feet and my heart and my brain were all in agreement: Get up and run, you idiot—and do not stop.

But if I was a boy of considerable foot speed in those days—as any smart-mouthed little troublemaker had better be—I was also the son of a lawyer, a man who’d taught his children the meaning of right and wrong, the importance of lawful behavior, and the total irrelevance of all such things once you get busted.

And it was that kid who knew that running, when the school fire alarm had been pulled, was exactly the worst—the most incriminating—thing you could do.

And so I walked. With that alarm clanging away in my heart I walked through the exit, made my way around the end of the building, and walked up to the students filing out and blended myself into their ranks. Randy had the same idea, I saw, but we did not speak and did not make eye contact. The important thing now was to stay cool. To wait for the all-clear, and to file back into the building with the rest of the students and go on with the day as if it were any other one.

And this I did, and with such faithfulness to character that, come fourth-period art class, fire alarm all but silenced in my heart, I got my hands on one of Miss P’s ink pads and set about staining my fingers a rich navy blue.

Why? Because that was the kind of kid I was, and because this was just any other day.

Five minutes into fifth period, I was in the halls again—not skipping class this time, but on my way to see Vice Principal H, at his request.

I knew Mr. H well, and believed he harbored a kind of head-shaking fondness for me, thinking I was not a bad kid, not really, but only pretending to be one to get attention. He expected me to grow out of such nonsense, I understood, and, if not make something of myself, at least do the world no real harm.

On this day he waved me into his office and closed the door and told me to take a seat. He leaned on his desk awhile in silence, then sat down in the chair beside me.

“Let me see your hands,” he said.

I showed him, and we stared at my blue-stained fingers.

He asked how I got blue ink on my fingers, and I told him the truth: fourth-period art class, the borrowed ink pad. Idiotic, immature, to be sure, but hardly worth a visit to his office. But then he told me what happens when a middle school fire alarm gets pulled—it shoots blue ink onto the puller’s hand—and a series of realizations began to dawn on me:

a) This visit had nothing to do with Miss P’s ink pad,
b) If the alarm had indeed spat ink at me, it missed—perhaps because I’d fallen to the floor,
And c) What were the freaking odds that I would stain my own fingers on the day when a booby-trapped alarm had failed to stain them?

I knew I was guilty of pulling the alarm, and I knew Mr. H knew I was guilty of pulling the alarm, but all that mattered to me, the lawyer’s son, in that moment, was that the blue ink was not from the fire alarm. It was not proof of my guilt.

I wanted to get Miss P up here, I wanted to get those kids who’d witnessed my handiwork with the ink pad, but Mr. H had moved on—explaining that when the fire alarm gets pulled, the fire department is alerted and must respond, and that costs the school district a lot of money—a lot of money, he emphasized. A report of vandalism must be filed, and cops must be called in. Detectives . . . would I rather talk to a detective?

I did not want to talk to a detective. I wanted to talk to my lawyer.

And at that thought, the prospect of explaining all this to my father, Mr. H got his confession—a tearful, shameful one in which I swore it was an accident, I never intended to pull the alarm, I was just messing around. (I did not mention Randy B; I may have been a vandal but I was no rat.)

In the end my father was called, he and Mr. H talked, and I was sent home. Two days later I got the verdict: I was to see a child psychologist. A shrink. “It’s the best deal you’re gonna get,” my father told me, and I burned with shame and anger. That I was in fact guilty did not concern me. What mattered was that the evidence that had nailed me was entirely, randomly,
freakishly circumstantial.

In my new novel, The Current, a lawyer tells a young woman, “Justice is blind, but she also can’t see worth a shit.” Not to equate my little tale of school vandalism with what happens to this young woman, or any other injustices of real consequence in the real world, like wrongful conviction, like victims who are not believed, like the guilty walking free, but I can see the connection between that boy with blue ink on his fingers and the writer I’ve become. And as I wrote The Current, it was not so much the wheels of justice that drove the story, although those machinations do fascinate me; it was what happens the moment someone, somewhere, breaks the law. Or is accused of it. At that moment, due process is only one component—and possibly the least consequential—of the great wave of human behavior set in motion, the irresistible undertow of cause and effect as lives are pushed along toward actions and reckonings they never would’ve foreseen.

I pulled that fire alarm. I did it. But all these years later I feel the pang of being accused of it—and confessing to it—for the wrong reasons. I wonder how I ended up in Mr. H’s office that day, really. Had word gone out to teachers to look for a kid with blue ink on his hands? Do school fire alarms even shoot blue ink when pulled, or had Mr. H, seeing the ink on my fingers, improvised that little detail on the fly? If so, my hat is off to the man. Or did Randy B, whose name I never mentioned to Mr. H, rat me out?

Innocence and circumstance play out in many ways, sometimes benignly, sometimes with dire results.

In real life, two boys wander an empty school hallway. There are consequences.

In The Current, a young woman walks a dark road at night, by a river. Lives are changed forever. Ten years later, two young women stop for gas in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. There’s time and place, and there’s deciding to do one thing and not another—that moment of choice—and then there’s everything after.