Scott Spencer’s River Under the Road is a condition of America novel that’s right on time even though it’s set in the 70s and 80s.
Spencer tells the story of two married couples who end up together on a Hudson river estate where one couple has the big house, and the other lives in the caretaker’s cottage. Marriage is a social deal, and River Under the Road’s canny structuring device—the novel is broken into chapters evoking thirteen parties between 1974 and 1990—brings home anti-romantic truths. The two couples at its heart know what love is but the worldliness of this world won’t go away. The novel’s major player, Thaddeus (see below)—who bought the estate upstate after lucking into a career as a screenwriter—wonders how he might “live a moral and creative life and still have extremely nice things.” He finds himself at the mercy of his own appetites whether he’s among extreme New Yorkers in the 70s or 80s money-men and their courtiers. Spencer helps us recall that hour when, per another writer: “the tide that lifts all boats was rising. Lawyers going broke on a million a year, private jets hung with pricey paintings…values by the dozen shelved with merciless sell-by dates.” But Spencer realizes the rising tide had already begun to leave many folks way behind. Class conflict is foundational to River Under the Road. Spencer is out to write something like a pre-history of what congealed into Trump’s base. His rangey parties and plot twists take in tough Christers with Palinesque delusions as well as deft ironists on the left coast whose wit is marked by “a deep sense of expediency.”
You must choose? Spencer’s all too human characters remind me of a prosaic line laid down by the class-bound padrone in the movie version of The Leopard: “We’re just human beings in a changing world.” Someone suggested recently it was Lampedusa’s novel that revived the possibility historical fiction might speak to the moment (after decades in which the genre was dissed as necessarily trashy). In River Under the Road, an elder from a more literate older generation muses about reading a John Jakes melodrama—a nod to debased versions of the historical novel (and patriotism). River Under the Road stays true to greater traditions though Spencer is alive to constraints on humanism in America. Thanks to his main characters’ identification with art-life and craft, River Under the Road belongs in the same neck of the woods as George Trow’s The Harvard Black Rock Forest. Spencer’s novel is suffused with a Trovian feeling for the history and beauty of the Hudson River that provides its surround. Like Trow, Spencer seems to lean toward a sort of liberal conservationism. His social imagination, though, is more capacious and more radical than Trow’s WASPy one. The Old Moor (along with Brecht and Sandburg) informs the following resonant passage from River Under the Road.
Thaddeus listened to the voracious crunch of the gravel as he and his family made their way from the car to the Christian Fun Zone. He recalled the many times he’d passed by this spot during construction. The one-hundred-pound sacks of cement stacked in a semicircle like sandbags in a battle zone. The backhoe the size of a rhinoceros. The razz of transistor radios. The whine of saws. The ringing of hammers. The smell of tar. The shirtless young men. The portly older guys crouched over their sawhorses, showing deep ass cleavage, extreme tans. Boards, nails, screws, bolts, glass, copper wire, copper pipes, polyurethane, putty, plumbing, paint, and pay by the hour. Wherever his eye landed was evidence that the world was made by others, and he enjoyed it like a child enjoys a stuffed toy dropped into his crib. Out there somewhere, in the brutal beyond were the road crews, and the logging crews, the masons and truckers, steelworkers, chemical workers, orderlies and electricians, paper hangers, bakers, the men in blood-spattered smocks eviscerating cattle, soldiers in ranks breathing their own stink, soldiers leaping from planes, soldiers ditching helicopters in sandstorms, soldiers bleeding, dying.
Who made this world?
Who made the clothes on his back? The shoes on his feet.
The fillings in his teeth.
His reading glasses. The other pair of reading glasses. The pair of reading glasses he was using as a bookmark as he made his way through Love in the Time of Cholera. The book itself, the cardboard, the binding, the ink. The pillows he propped behind him as he read–who raised the chickens or the ducks or the geese or whatever kind of feathers were inside the pillows, who plucked the fowl, who stuffed the feathers into sacks and sewed them? Who made the mattress, the bed frame, where did the lamp come from and how about the shade? His daughter’s car seat? His son’s Game Boy?
Monkeys, it occurred to him, knew more about their surroundings than he knew about his.
Editor’s addendum: I’m just realizing now Spencer alludes to a couple of possible soundtracks for this meditation. One is the wonderful song that gave him his title. (Sample lyric: “I found a river under the road/been there forever but I’d never been told/It goes much farther, deeper and darker/than the road above could ever know.”) The second song is “Solidarity Forever” as performed by Ed Asner at a Mondale benefit witnessed by Thaddeus at one of the novel’s parties. Asner is a figure of pathos. He ends up singing alone. In the Age of Reagan, none of the Democrats in the room can remember the lyrics.
A line in a review of River Under the Road made this editor feel a need to underscore Spencer’s clarities about class don’t rest on denials of the significance of race. I was struck when that review zeroed in on a moment in the novel when class conflicts “come to a head”: “Thaddeus…brings chicken from a new place in town to a fundraising party given by river-folk. No one will eat it because it represents the town’s gentrification.” That’s not exactly false, but it matters too those working class “river-folk” are all white and the chicken comes from a take-out joint owned by African Americans new to the neighborhood. B.D.