In his 1983 book, “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” Paul Fussell identified a new rung on the social ladder that he dubbed X. Class Xers are bohemians who are neither rich nor blue collar but not middle class, either; they eschew the trappings of social hierarchy for something more free and artsy.
Scott Spencer’s rich, provocative 11th novel, “River Under the Road,” dissects the shoals of failure and privilege for such artistic types. His protagonists, Thaddeus Kaufman and Grace Cornell, fall in love in Chicago and move to New York in search of artistic success. Spencer is interested in solving the conundrum of how you could “live a moral and creative life and still have extremely nice things.” Or, as Thaddeus wonders, “Since when did wanting a bit of luxury constitute a . . . crime? Wasn’t that the whole purpose of the goddamned country?”
The novel is structured as a baker’s dozen parties between 1976 and 1990. At almost every shindig, from graduation party to political fundraiser, too much booze leads to some deliciously shocking event or life-altering transgression.
Thaddeus, the son of Trotskyite Jewish bookstore owners, hopes to be a novelist. Non-Jewish Grace grew up poor — supported mainly by her brother’s drug-dealing — and makes painstakingly photorealistic still lifes. When Thaddeus lucks into a career as a Hollywood screenwriter, he gets them out of the “loud and dangerous, discouraged and falling apart” city and buys a lavish estate on the Hudson River. There they meet Jennings, son of the property’s long-suffering caretaker and a famous local rake. Grace’s art stagnates while Thaddeus’s career skyrockets, calling him away on assignments. What could possibly go wrong with leaving his wife all alone in the middle of nowhere with their needy children and brooding stud Jennings?
At one point, Thaddeus is summoned to London to meet Stanley Kubrick about a potential remake of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Sly, since of course, this novel is essentially a remake of D. H. Lawrence’s story. In the backwater town of Leyden, N.Y., Thaddeus and Grace don’t fit in with anyone: not the blue-collar workers who pray for a new cement factory to generate jobs, not the rich who oppose the factory’s threat to their riverfront views. As a screenwriter, Thaddeus doesn’t quite conform, either: He’s neither auteur nor hack. As Grace becomes more and more bitter and disenchanted, Thaddeus bristles that “portraying herself as some put-upon oppressed exploited chained-to-the-sink wife was far from the truth, since she had help and hours and hours of free time and hours and hours after that of more free time, not to mention the countless other luxuries and, really, she ought to be ashamed of herself for whining about a life that most people would die for.”
Yet he still adores her and longs for her while he’s gone. Since “Endless Love” (1979), a fine novel eclipsed by not one but two bad movies, Spencer’s specialty has been the ache of unrequited (or lost) love. His prose on the subject of romance is fulsome, lush, downright Lawrencian. He has a supple understanding of infidelity and marital dynamics, especially the simmering resentments of a floundering relationship. “Marriages were mysterious, each written in a secret code. A marriage was its own anthropology, similar enough to all the others to fool you into believing you understand it.”
Although Thaddeus and Grace are at the center of “River Under the Road,” Spencer uses an old-fashioned omniscient point-of-view that gives him access into everyone’s thoughts — even characters as minor as Horse, a local corrections officer with an anger-management problem and a blind son. In truth, Spencer isn’t as convincing at analyzing the locals as he is at parsing the dynamics of the more affluent and urbane, from the cuthroat shoptalk at Hollywood industry parties to egalitarian pickup games at the Manhattan YMCA, where “a trust fund couldn’t buy you a layup.” His decision to describe the hairstyle, outfit and expression of virtually every party guest and cabdriver, while useful to his taxonomy of social status, also unnecessarily slows the action. Readers may wonder why Spencer decides to end the novel without resolving many of the major plot points he introduces — including several buried secrets unlikely to stay buried in such a small town.
But “River Under the Road” is wry and insightful enough about the intricacies of maintaining an artist’s life — and the sacrifices required to achieve it — that it will no doubt become required reading for the Hudson Valley set. They may recognize some of their neighbors, clinging to both prosperity and happiness by their fingernails.
Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel is “Love Bomb.” She teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden.
By Scott Spencer
Ecco. 366 pp. $27.99