Angela Palm, author of "Riverine."

Angela Palm, author of "Riverine." Credit: Greg Perez Studio

RIVERINE: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here, by Angela Palm. Graywolf Press, 253 pp., $16 paper.

The dictionary defines “riverine” as “formed by or resembling a river.” Both senses apply to Angela Palm’s debut memoir. The author revisits a childhood spent alongside and knee-deep in the Kankakee River in Indiana. Rerouted to make space for the town she grew up in, the waterway flooded every few years, reclaiming its original route. “But why?” she wonders. “Why had anyone built a whole neighborhood in an old riverbed that flooded half the time and stunk like rot and heat all the time?”

The story resembles a river, too: the proverbial stream of consciousness, a meandering journey through Palm’s inner life. As the author comments to the man she loved when she was a girl and he was the boy next door, “People are mostly water and thoughts.”

Fortunately, most of the thoughts in this book are like that one: well-put, often worth stopping and mulling over. But what keeps the pages turning is the current of Angela and Corey’s doomed relationship. By the time she is old enough to do more than stare at him out the window, he has murdered an elderly neighbor couple in cold blood and is serving a life sentence without parole. He can never be her boyfriend, but he is never far from her mind. Eventually she begins to write to him, and in the final section of the book, to visit him in prison.

Angela and Corey’s hometown was featured in “The Guinness Book of World Records” for having the most churches per capita. This and many other dusty clichés about flyover country get a vigorous beating and airing here, returning to their original brightness. Cornfields, for example, may look “unassuming and picturesque from a distance,” but they are a “rural hell” to a young teen working as a corn detasseler. “[Up] close, this close, the corn was violent with leaves as thick and sharp as thorns that cut right through skin.” This job is done by local kids too young for regular work permits alongside teams of migrant workers. Never are the two permitted to mingle. The kids, Palm suspects, are paid more.

As soon as she’s old enough, Palm gets a job at the River, the town’s only bar and restaurant, another cliché setting brought stinking and rocking to life. “At work, I kept waitresses from crying or fighting, inhaled secondhand smoke, and smelled like meat juice.” On breaks she drinks virgin daiquiris, reads, and dreams of Corey, already in prison. “Corey had worked there and planted the plants around the restaurant. ... He had washed the dishes that I would clear from the tables. I liked this continuity.”

Palm leaves the river, goes to college, moves to Indianapolis, then Vermont. She marries and has children. But the drama of real life is no longer center stage in the book. The focus is on her intellectual development. In college, she studies sociology and criminology, examining theories like Broken Windows, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, the Biological Theory of Deviance, Differential Association. She thinks about the work of writers including Julia Alvarez, Dinty Moore, Alison Lurie, Richard Yates, Rachel Kushner and Ron Carlson, and movies like Eminem’s “8 Mile” and Terence Malick’s “Badlands.” From the first pages to the last, “Riverine” is full of questions. One of these is the purpose of writing.

“Could I better understand the significance of the angle of a man’s bottom lip, of an illiterate man registering to vote, of rotten milk, because I am compelled to notice?” she asks.

Taken as a whole, “Riverine” is an answer to this question. Yes, she can.

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