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Fiction Review   

 
Where the River Bends
by Richard Haddaway
Southern Methodist University Press,
$25.00 (262pp)
ISBN: 0-87074-470-4

 

 
 

 

Richard Haddaway’s first novel, Where the River Bends, is big, sprawling, heartfelt and rambunctious.  Looming as large as Texas itself, the setting of this coming-of-age and drowning-in-alcohol story, a multigenerational combat over the disease that inflicts a father and two of his sons, is the vast giant of a man, the protagonist’s grandfather, William Beckwith, known and revered simply as Granddaddy.

Lording over his oil holdings and ranch country just as he does Sunday Dinner, Granddaddy is a man removed to another time: preferably the Eighteenth Century “or, in a pinch, the Nineteenth.”  Living in a huge Victorian mansion on “a green island of shade at the edge of the brown, outstretching numbness of West Texas -- the last outpost of Southern civilization, as Granddaddy liked to describe it,” are the oldest grandson Stephen, the boy’s brothers and sisters, aunts and cousins, a housekeeper and her husband and their child. Each of this “multitude” is described with a flare by the author as he moves through life, witnesses many of the happenings from his place in the nearby treehouse. There are Laura, Whyvonne, Endicott, John, Travis, Baby Midland, Arthur, and Aunt Jew in her wheelchair shooting squirrels out of the trees with her four-ten and writing historical romance novels.

With his father, who stays away more and more, Stephen visits the place where the Brazos River bends: an old cabin where the boy’s father escapes his own father, his wife, his children, responsibility. This distant place is his hideaway, losing himself in the security blanket of whiskey that eventually consumes his life. Nearby are another grouping of people: old Bert, Dorthy (sic), Miz Abernathy, and Homer at the roadside joint called Sportsman’s Inn where Miz Abernathy makes the best chicken-fried steaks in west Texas. It is at Sportsman’s Inn that the almost twins, Roy and Dale, drink beer with their shirts off with their matching wives, matching kids, matching tattoos and matching pickup trucks named Trigger and Buttercup. When they drink enough beer, they’ve been known to sing a duet of “Happy Trails to You.”

As tragedy strikes, the “multitude” continues to revolve around Granddaddy, and it is in the process of this movement that novelist Haddaway runs into trouble. Rather than increasing the dramatic tension, the work slips out of the writer’s control as Stephen grows older. It is not that we do not believe the main character’s flaws that begin to appear, we learn about them too haphazardly. We are told rather than having the flaws appear through a natural flow of action. During the last third of “Where the River Bends” the first paragraphs of each chapter are set aside to tell how alcohol is now taking control of Stephen’s life as it had with his father.

His lovely wife, Liz, a law student and later a lawyer given to defending liberal causes, is a very forgiving and a very easy-going person. She is taken aback by some of her husband’s behavior. She rolls with the punches a bit too easily, thus easing the tension that could -- and, I think, should have been more tightly woven into the texture of the story.

However, even given its major problems, Where the River Bends is a very good read about an interesting and colorful family and extended family.

 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

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