The Hudson Valley, like every corner of the United States, is rife with class division. In its extreme, those who inhabit the mansions along the river coexist with those who long for the days when industry along the shoreline obstructed those expensive views. Perhaps upstate New York is even more of a class quagmire, as not only do the established working families clash with the long-time landed gentry, but new, big-city money perpetually arrives to discover hostility from both the old money who sell them their estates and the locals who work in their homes. This is the canvas that Scott Spencer has painted his remarkable 11th novel, River Under the Road, upon and where wealth and the lack thereof dictate every brushstroke of his characters' marriages, friendships, and careers.
Grace and Thaddeus fall in love and leave their rather humble upbringings in the Midwest for 1970s New York, where she hopes to succeed as an artist and he as a writer. When Thaddeus basically wins the lottery by writing a script about Iranian hostages the moment before the actual hostage crisis, the newlyweds trade in their urban walkup for a palatial estate upriver, never imagining how extreme the spoils of success can destroy everything in its wake. Not only does their new home afford those priceless river views the locals literally hope to obliterate with a concrete plant to gain the jobs that go with it, it also comes with an elderly caretaker and his son and new wife; the couple are similar in age to Grace and Thaddeus but have nothing else in common with them.
The occasion for each chapter is always a party: Thaddeus's graduation, a New York City drug-and-sex-filled-night out, Thaddeus and Grace's wedding, a political fundraiser, an LA industry schmooze-fest, etc. This device culminates in one epic day where two parties literally attack each other, as the haves and have-nots have it out over the economics of the river. Grace and Thaddeus, representing the new money, must pick sides or get out of the way, though it becomes more and more apparent that neither side really wants them anyway, ironically providing their troubled marriage one last hope for common ground.
The novel is populated by increasingly unhappy people—even the children are miserable: too thin, too fat, tragically blind. But Spencer's gift is to make you read deeply into their desperate relationships and to generate an understanding of how, where, and why things just fall apart. Fortunately, such tough insights come on a sumptuous platter of prose. Here, for example, buried in the middle of a scene, a character realizes her husband has potentially stumbled upon an old lover: "Muriel's face colored deeply; stained glass in the church of putting two and two together."
Eventually the "river under the road" is explained to Thaddeus by a fellow self-important screenwriter at a disastrous Hollywood party. She compares the feeling of this hidden river to how a species has an awareness of what's going on within their environment, specifically describing how bald eagles break open their own eggs when they sense an upcoming food shortage. It's a brutal image for how these characters navigate their lives and loves, but it's still a tool for survival and hope in the worst of circumstances. And like that tremble of water beneath your feet, Spencer's powerful novel will reverberate with you long after you leave it behind.