Book review: Riverine, by Angela Palm
Angela Palm grew up in rural Indiana, in a house built in a dried-out riverbed created by redirecting the Kankakee River, their little town not even designated on maps. Next door lived a boy named Corey, and they had the typical girl-and-boy-next-door relationship, into their adolescence. They weren’t ever formally together, it was all very emotional and intense without being any kind of committed relationship, in that unique way that adolescent loves tend to be.
At some point in their teens, Corey began to stray, getting involved in the wrong kind of things with the wrong kind of people, leading to drugs and then somehow, horrifyingly, the murder of two elderly neighbors.
Angela lived with the memories and the wondering why for the rest of her life, with Corey meanwhile sitting in jail. Again, in that special way of young, somewhat unrequited love, she holds onto her memories and feelings for him for, apparently, her whole life.
But Corey is just one of the stories here, and the narrative is nothing if not wildly divergent. That’s even a topic covered too – the idea of bifurcation, being split emotionally or mentally, the different paths a life can take. This is all well-trodden memoir material.
What’s unique and enjoyable is the strong sense of place: Palm’s connection to her rural corner of Indiana and what it’s meant to her, how it’s shaped her, where she and her family stood in that community. She writes wandering, wistful descriptions like this: “The girl, our girl, makes it out of the riverbed, but she carries traces of brown water in her lungs and sediment in her pockets so she knows the river is still there, despite all her moving on.”
They’re sometimes quite beautifully written, descriptive and evocative.
She’s able to draw a lot out of this regional connection, and it was for the most part worth reading, if veering a little too far into well-trodden memoir material, if you know what I mean. As much as I like this kind of story, I’ve read it many times before and there wasn’t much new said in this incantation, beyond a few lovely, poetic lines.
The bigger issue for me was too much navel-gazing, which may seem a weird criticism for a memoir, but there has to be some greater hook for a memoir to catch readers’ attention. This one told me far too much about a childhood and life than I needed to know, while constantly looping in the writings and ideas of other writers, musings on science, the sky, criminal justice, fair wages and working conditions for Mexican field laborers, her delinquent family members – all packaged as a story about reconciling her long-ago relationship with a puppy-love neighbor boy who’s a convicted murderer.
When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never knew how to answer. “What do you think I should be?” I would reply.
This wishy-washy attitude dogs her her whole life, including in this writing, as she rarely commits to following a topic through before skipping on to the next. Sometimes I love that quick flitting between lots of ideas, when it’s made to work, but here it annoyed.
When I fell in love with an actual man, rather than the idea of one, I was relieved.
That’s the big problem, being in love with an idea, either of a person or the past and worst of all, some combination of both. Palm takes us through other landmarks in her life, other portraits of her eccentric family, her marriage, and it’s hard to fully understand why her obsession with Corey stuck so strongly.
It actually feels uncomfortable; getting a glimpse of her relationship with her patient, mature husband, then hearing her thoughts on Corey when she finally visits him in prison, exclaiming over his slightest actions as if they’re deep and meaningful. I’m cringing again just writing about it. As a reader, I wasn’t convinced at the strength of their connection.
And I don’t hate purple prose, I can appreciate when it’s artistically done in a stream-of-consciousness way. Palm occasionally hits the sweet spot, conjuring up dreamy imagery of a rough and tumble corner of America and the troubled souls that inhabit it, teasing out her memories and her acquired adult understanding of them as filtered through the past. But these instances were too few and far between, and instances where the line crossed into nearly unreadable territory were abundant.
For example, when asked by a customs agent on the Canadian/American border what she does for a living, Palm thinks, “I could have said that once I’d watched a half gallon of milk go bad as proof that time is change, that one thing can become another. As proof that cheese is a sublime marriage of art and nature.”
This line comes near the end of the book, and if it had appeared any earlier, I certainly wouldn’t have finished. I definitely slapped it closed and took a ragey break as it was. What kind of pretentious answer is that? NO. NO. A WORLD OF NO. That’s not what you say to a border official, even in your thoughts. That’s not what you say to anyone, ever.
I feel it’s worth mentioning that this book received many accolades, it was highly lauded and well-reviewed, which is why I kept going when I didn’t love it – it came so praised that I thought there must be something really worthwhile here. Maybe I’m an exception, to be so immune to its charms, and it’s actually a literary masterpiece that went entirely over my head with its philosophical and writerly references and performance art answers to customs officials about rotten milk and cheese.
Instead, it felt like the narrative wandered and redirected as much as the ever-present Kankakee river, parts of it drying up and abandoned before they really had much chance to get going, and on to the next murky offshoot.
Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here
by Angela Palm
published August 16, 2016 by Graywolf Press
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