Memoirs don't recount lives - they would be very boring if they did - but pinpoint highlights, key moments, telling episodes. They chronicle what the author remembers or chooses to remember as the pivotal, critical, defining or amusing moments of his journey. That is why autobiographies are so revealing. Human lives are remarkably similar; it is what a person chooses to recall about his or her life that is different. Some chiefly remember hurts and failures; others recall mainly pleasures and triumphs. Few lives consist solely or even predominantly of lights or shadows - but many memoirs do.
What Mr. Dobbs remembers is running the rapids. It makes his book a symphony of whirls and eddies, swift water and still water, depths and shallows. His structure is equally fluid: the memoir remembers things in a quasi- chronological order, but some episodes link up thematically more than temporally, and a few appear in sequential proximity simply because they seem to have occurred to Mr. Dobbs at the same time. It is said of such books that they might have benefited from more rigorous editing. In this case, no... It is one of the book's charms that it is something of an unmade bed: vague, haphazard, at times repetitious, at other times skimpy on basic information. In this, it resembles the author's persona - perhaps not in real life, but as it emerges from the story. Untidiness becomes Mr. Dobbs. Messiness fits in trace amounts; a gently meandering stream-of-consciousness strikes the right note. It is like being in the company of a quick-witted and acutely observant person who has just started wandering a bit; a fine raconteur, whose senior moments are barely beginning to register on the dodderscope.
The Literary Review of Canada
Running the Rapids is 82-year-old Dobb's autobiography, a work almost impossible to describe. It is humane, ribald, learned, countrified, cosmopolitan, heroic, sorrowful and hysterically funny. It is written with an exquisite sensitivity for the music of langauage and with an extraordinary knack for rendering the small narratives that gather themselves into a Life.
Dobbs's swift prose seats the reader in a canoe, as the memoirist manages, with the economy of retrospection to steer around unanticipated rocks in the midst of history's profuse foam and spray. One gift this memoirist bestows on an audience is the succinct celebration of both bad and good luck, in the medium of consistently good prose. Misfortune itself becomes an object of aesthetic pleasure, something fortuitously or laboriously overcome. Like all worthy autobiographies, Running the Rapids feels impersonal to the degree that the predicaments and pleasures it describes assume an exemplary, even an allegorical dimension. I was repeatedly confronted by the strangeness of human life as I absorbed Dobbs's experiences.
Although Dobbs's memoir considerably augments my knowledge of him, the firmest image I retain of the author is of this quill-wielding, stool-perched, voluminous-wigged, intent, and apparently indefatigable figure.
Books in Canada
Dobbs' writing has an elegant, almost Georgian, quality to it, and the frontispiece of an eighteenth-century caricature of "the writer at work" is apt. Leading us on a picaresque post-colonial jaunt across the globe, we might be reading Defoe. Then again we might be reading Orwell or even Hemingway. Whether playing liar-dice with the regulars in a seedy bar near Bilbao or shooting lions with a Gaudenzio's 12-bore around Tanganyika, Dobbs gives us a neat snapshot of another time and another world.
Running the Rapids reveals a complex man, adaptable, self-deprecating, wryly humourous, multi-talented ("cultivated" would be his own word) and with an intellectual integrity that partly explains his being not much more affluent now than he was fifty years ago.
The Irish Book Review
There is a nostalgic element in this book for anyone who has lived through the forties and fifties, the settings as evocative as Madeleine Cakes - London, Africa, Andalucia...
Partly a terse record of facts and people, partly a fascinating narration, Dobbs emerges as liberal or left-wing in the best sense of the words, his heart in the right place, in spite of certain unconscious attitudes inherited with his mother's milk.
The poet can be found in his descriptions of a destroyer in an Atlantic storm, a safari in the African bush, his memory-exercising recreation of his childhood home, his final acceptance that the train is waiting for him.
I think most readers will care, and will be moved, and perhaps even feel a touch of something like wisdom.
The Globe and Mail