There they were, a few hundred feet from the bustle and boutiques of Warren Street: rows of dusty cabins cobbled together from found materials, some of them sitting over the water on stilts. It was like I’d stepped through a time warp to a period before urban renewal, before zoning, before there was a law for everything.
In the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries, shantytowns dotted the Hudson River, but by 2010, Hudson’s was the only one left. The inhabitants of Shantytown were evicted via SWAT team in 2012 after losing a legal battle with the city, and the shacks, now unmaintained, are falling into the river one-by-one.
However, this piece of Hudson Valley cultural history now has permanence thanks to William “Billy” Shannon’s “The River’s Never Full.”
The novel, which is being released Dec. 8, follows a young reporter as he begins examining the fishing village and its iconoclastic inhabitants. First on assignment, the protagonist quickly befriends one of the inhabitants, ‘immy, absorbing the stories and history of the place with eager ears.
The book is part-novel, part-history, and satisfies as both. Many of the characters are fictionalized versions of real people, and Shannon captures the cadence and colloquialisms of the old-time Hudson vernacular – semi-extinct at this point – with precision.
Shannon wrote most of the novel in the winter of 2015-2016, then revisited the manuscript about a year ago, he said.
“The River’s Never Full” was originally going to be a broader novel, Shannon said, but “I decided about a year ago it was time to kind of solidify the story around the shacks.”
Shannon became interested in Shantytown – also called the Furgary, the Fugary Boat Club or the Tin Boat Association – in 2012, when the legal battle was coming to a head. Shannon wrote for the Hudson Register-Star at the time (he has since written for the Boston Globe and the New York Times), and the protagonist’s experience is based on his own.
Seeing the shacks though the eyes of a reporter also allows the reader to lean more about them, Shannon said.
“I felt that was the only natural way for me to tell the story,” he said. “Here’s this young guy who, for some reason that he can’t quite understand, [is] drawn to this spot and he’s interested in the characters and he’s asking questions normally nobody would ask people.”
The book is dialogue-heavy, with some chapters consisting entirely of the inhabitants’ tales of life in Shantytown and on the Hudson River.
Shannon talked to many of the inhabitants around the time of the evictions, taking notes on the village’s history and getting the vernacular down.
“I was always drawn to those little colloquialisms and weird mechanisms in people’s speech,” he said.
Many of the stories the characters tell – most closely based on actual events – are sad even as they celebrate the place. People drown off Shantytown; there’s poverty and alcoholism. If “The River’s Never Full” is a swan song for Shantytown, it’s one that includes the dark times as well as the light.
More than anything, the novel captures the existential stress and loss of the Hudson Valley in flux. My favorite chapter consists of a monologue from an unknown character describing the gentrification – and even more than this, the modernization – of the city, for better and for worse.
The Hudson River’s shantytowns are now a thing of the past, but, with this novel, at least they are not lost to history.
“The River’s Never Full” will be on sale Dec. 8, but can be pre-ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org