A River So Long by Vallie Lynn Watson
review by Micah Dean Hicks
Veronica, the protagonist of Watson’s A River So Long, lives in a world of hotels. Her job takes her to Phoenix, Indianapolis, New Orleans, all over the country. Friends and lovers come and go, but Veronica ends up alone, standing in front of a window high over the city, trying to see light reflecting off the river. Wherever she travels, the presence of rivers remains constant. When water isn’t near, highways and traffic shimmer, become water-like, the river finding a way to reach her.
At the home she almost never visits in Arizona, her house falls apart around her estranged husband. The two haven’t had sex in years, her husband in and out of rehab, the two of them unable to decide if they want to stay together.
Veronica is a haunted woman. Her parents died when she was young, but more than this, she is haunted by the living. As a teenager, Veronica got high with a brother and sister and ended up sleeping with both. The sister, Maggie, accuses them of taking advantage of her. As Maggie becomes a celebrity, Veronica obsesses over her, watching her on television, reading about her in magazines, and visiting the sets where she’s filming, reliving her guilt over and over. She is also haunted by Dylan, her best friend from high school, the person she loves above all others, but also the person who wasn’t there for her when her parents died. Over the course of the novel, in fits and starts, the two attempt to reestablish their friendship and make sense of their history.
Veronica’s relationships are fragmented. In a single evening, she might share a drink with a friend, then leave and have a one night stand, then get out of bed in the night and meet someone else in the hotel lobby to talk. She has a little of
everyone, all of no one.
In some sections of the novel, Watson breaks Veronica’s past into short lists: all her favorite cars, important foods, the clothes she’s packing. Each item has its own history, representing Veronica’s connections to the people she has known, all of it as tenuous and ephemeral as a dress ten years old or the memory of a mashed potato recipe she can never get right.
The novel has moments of breathtaking cruelty. When Veronica gets a call that her friend Beau has been in a car crash, she stands in front of the mirror and applies mascara, only half listening to the details. It is filled with strangeness: a house with sharply uneven floors, collections of wooden giraffes, entire malls for sale, and a dog with seven extra claws on the back of its feet. There are also moments of sweetness here: Dylan taking flowers from his father’s grave and putting them on Veronica’s parents’ stone, a celebrity teaching a young fan how to dance, people drowning in their own traumas who always make time for each other.
Through the story of Veronica’s disintegrating life, the novel moves like a featherweight, light and strong, jabbing at your psyche like Jean Rhys. The sentences are clean and surprising, the people sad and familiar. Watson’s novel will knock you on your ass.
Vallie Lynn Watson is the author of the novel A River So Long (Luminis Books, 2012). Her work has appeard in dozens of literary magazines such as PANK, decomP magazine, and Gargoyle. She is an editor at Blip Magazine, formerly Mississippi Review
online. Watson received her doctorate at the Center for Writers, the University of Southern Mississippi, and teaches creative writing at Southeast Missouri State University. In her spare time she is earning a hot air ballooning license.
Micah Dean Hicks is an author of magical realism, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories. His work is published or forthcoming in over forty magazines, including Indiana Review, New Letters, and New Orleans Review. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, will be out from New American Press in summer 2013. He lives and teaches in Tallahassee, Florida.