RIVER UNDER THE ROAD, by Scott Spencer. Ecco, 366 pp., $27.99.
Upper Dutchess County is a semirural wonderland of glorious landscapes, interesting people and, of course, the magnificent Hudson River, but a layer of feudalism runs beneath the surface. Many of the great riverfront estates have been acquired by the likes of Jann Wenner, a founder of Rolling Stone, yet a few of the aristocratic old families have managed to hold out, with the result that old money and new mingle eagerly yet uneasily — and both are resented by the hoi polloi.
For Scott Spencer, who lives in this lovely neck of the woods, it’s the perfect setting for his 11th novel. “River Under the Road” is an old-fashioned story of love, money and social class told through a clever artifice: a series of 13 awful parties (from 1976 to 1990) that give the narrative the immediacy of a series of snapshots, even as the story spills engagingly beyond the boundaries of each image. As events so often do in Spencer’s work, the parties begin in Chicago, quickly move to New York and end up in Leyden, a fictional version of Rhinebeck, New York, that is practically Spencer’s version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
“Every generation gets its own New York,” the author shrewdly observes. It’s the misfortune of young Thaddeus Kaufman, an aspiring writer with an unfortunate love of luxury, and Grace Cornell, a self-taught artist of unfashionable exactitude, to get one of the worst by moving there in the ’70s. Intimidated by the dangerous and bankrupt city and alienated from its nihilistic downtown art scene, they flounder until Thad sells a prescient screenplay about the taking of some American hostages in the Middle East. Propelled by newfound wealth, they move up the river to a historic mansion whose resident caretakers, the father-and-son team of Hat and Jennings Stratton, will complicate their lives immensely.
Grace and Thad soon discover that wealth is a trap. Grace finds herself transformed into a reluctant housewife, unable to work, while Thad has to keep shuttling back and forth to Los Angeles (and churning out cinematic garbage) to pay the bills associated with their grand lifestyle. Why didn’t anyone tell them about the snobbery of the local gentry, or the seething proles enraged by affluent opposition to a proposed new cement plant that might produce a few jobs? Driven by guilt and a pathological need to be liked, Thad makes a fateful decision: he’ll deed a house on the property to Hat, binding the two families for years to come.
With its extravagant elites living in the shadow of a furious white working class, it’s hard not to read this book as an allegory about America in the age of Donald Trump. Says a Trump-like aspiring sheriff: “You can’t have a place where the majority of the people feel like they don’t even belong. Okay? Either we turn things around or this place is going to blow sky high.”
Readers will also notice, about halfway through, that while the characters are vividly drawn, they are for the most part vile. Not to worry: Spencer is a novelist of extravagant gifts, and “River Under the Road” showcases them amply. Nobody is better at obsessive passion than the author of “Endless Love” (1979), and few novelists bring such mordant wit to bear on slow-motion tragedies such as marriage and career failure. Hat, with his “exhausting brand of courtliness and condescension,” has a library book “which was wrapped in thick plastic like an old lady’s couch.” His late wife loved Red Matthews, owner of Leyden Stone and Gravel, a married man with “short white hair all over his body like dandelion spores and eyes like bullet holes.” As a young man in New York, Thad “experienced his penury as a kind of apartheid,” and writing at night, “worked with the diligence of a prisoner trying to dig his way out of his cell with a spoon.”
Yet Spencer’s gifts sometimes take us a little far afield, or cause us to linger there too long as we gaze back longingly at our busy protagonists. Able to animate any character with a few keystrokes, the author can’t resist pulling them out of the air, one after another, and disposing of them just as lightly after portentous encounters that come to nothing — in this book at least. “River Under the Road” is apparently the first volume of a planned trilogy, so some of these folks will probably turn up again. We can only hope so.