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ISBN: 978-1-62557-061-1
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Categories Fiction, Short Stories

Unbend the River

Publication Date: January 2024


The linked stories in Unbend the River are set along a forested stretch of land between Lake Erie and the upper Allegheny River in Western New York, places dense with rivers, hills, and forest. The characters, all of whom are tied to a modern knife manufacturing plant, illustrate all the ways love and longing shapeshift over the course of a long life. A host of elderly hockey players, Franciscan Friars, loser heroes, budding conmen, and unintentional historians are all wired to search for meaning. Each flash their creative genius when fighting off idleness, anger, and disappointment. They build nightmare hotrods and race school buses; train wild dogs, homing pigeons, and dancing horses; and fight wildfires and grasshopper swarms. They crash headlong into the chaos, confusion, and confluence of their homes, never losing their energy to seek out the essential miracles hidden all around them.


With soaring prose, Devin Murphy captures the beauty, hardship, and humanity of the many working-class characters in these dynamic stories set in upstate New York. Place shapes these characters’ lives, and even when they leave it, it never leaves them. Murphy’s triumph is to make us feel that belonging and impact in our own bones, as if we’ve lived here forever amongst these superbly drawn characters. A vital and unforgettable collection.

—Steven Schwartz, author of Tenderest of Strings

Murphy finds a way to generate an uncommon empathy for his characters, as they (alongside we readers) stand bemused in the face of this world, and the extraordinariness lurking in its carefully observed mundanities; bemused at its ability, in turn, to break and to lift up our hearts. These stories know that one can’t ever shake the losses we’ve endured, but they also know that the act of endurance can be a holy one, that grief and incantation can sometimes twine. The result, as these stories accumulate, is electric and exhilarating. This book made me want to go out into the world, and to look and look and look at all of the magic—melancholy and otherwise—that I hadn’t noticed before.

—Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers

This collection of stories set in rural New York is heartwarming and heartbreaking by turns. The characters are vividly drawn, and their interactions are poignant and often humorous. The stories are told with a deft touch and an eye for detail; Murphy’s prose is both elegant and moving. This book will leave readers homesick for a place they have never been and people they have never met.

—Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy

It’s a testament to Devin Murphy’s skill as a writer that each voice in Unbend the River is distinct and memorable. An array of characters, all with a connection to the town of Olean, float in and out of each other’s stories, pulled by their deep loneliness, yearning to connect. Murphy’s rich, textured writing fully immerses us in the lives of people forgotten by the world, lives that are nevertheless transcendent and hopeless and beautiful, all at the same time.

—SJ Sindu, author of Blue Skinned Gods

Devin Murphy’s Unbend the River is an antidote for a cynical age. These stories catalog many of the modern maladies that plague flyover country—addiction, vanished jobs, dissolving families—then take us so deep into the experience that we too pray for mercy along with this cast of misfits. Murphy has a strong eye for detail and an ear attuned to the music of American tongues, and he shows incredible heart as his characters strive to keep each other close.

—Theodore Wheeler, author of The War Begins in Paris

There’s something decidedly autumnal about Devin Murphy’s big-hearted new collection, Unbend the River, every character achingly suspended between who they were, and who they’ll be—between the seasons that make up a life. And yet who doesn’t linger to watch the colors change? Sieved from the Allegheny River, these stories walk right off the page. They loom over your shoulder. They sit in your gut. They haunt you from one room to the next, because these wounded lives, so tenderly wrought, aren’t theirs alone. They’re ours. Only in Murphy’s sure hands would that melancholy sip so neat.

—Carson Vaughan, author of Zoo, Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream

Every character in Unbend the River feels real and deeply rooted: in a landscape, in a community, in work, in a family or web of friendships, in their own histories and hopes. In these powerfully observed, richly detailed stories, Devin Murphy beautifully explores how the places and people we love can shape, strangle, and ultimately sustain each other.

—Caitlin Horrocks, author of Life Among the Terranauts

About the Author

© Megan Bearder

Devin Murphy

Devin Murphy is a national bestselling author of the novels The Boat Runner and Tiny Americans published by Harper Perennial. These books have been selected as Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers, Illinois Reads, and book of the year by the Chicago Writer’s Association, and Society of Midland Authors. His short story collection, Unbend the River, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. His recent work appears in The Chicago TribuneGlimmer TrainThe Missouri ReviewThe Sun, and Outside Magazine as well as many others. He holds an MFA from Colorado State University, a PHD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University, and lives in Chicago with his wife and their three kids.

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