Review of “River City One”
By David P. Craig
The words once sent chills down my back.
I first heard “River City” called over the radio in 2006. I was a staff sergeant serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, manning the radio at our base in a bombed-out soap factory in Fallujah’s warehouse district. Working alongside 11 other Marines on a military transition team, we gave support to a Marine infantry battalion that patrolled day and night through the area.
On one particular day, the battalion had sent out a mounted patrol that struck an incendiary IED. When the words “River City” came over the encrypted station, I knew what it meant: a Marine had been killed. All radio traffic back to the United States was cut off to give time for the deceased’s family to receive the dreadful knock at the door. Even today, to read those words is to be reminded of how it felt that day. My breath caught in my throat; my stomach turned inside out. Who was killed? How did it happen? For anyone who served in close combat in the War on Terror, the words meant a loss of focus on the task at hand. I drifted into a menacing dream.
And so, “River City” is an apt fit for the title of John Waters’ novel, River City One (Simon and Schuster, 2023). The protagonist’s demeanor and mental state are much like those of any Marine or soldier who heard these words called over the radio. Here is a character slipping away from reality.
The protagonist, John Walker, has returned to so-called normal life after a haunting tour in Afghanistan, where he witnessed firsthand the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many of our comrades. Initially, Walker appears to be the picture of veteran success. He is an attorney at a prestigious law firm. He is a father and husband. But what looks on the surface like success and happiness is, in fact, hollow to him.
The business world is not what Walker expects, as no job is upon graduation from high school or college, and certainly not after leaving behind the purpose and mission of combat service. The story paints a stark juxtaposition between purpose in military life and purposelessness in modern corporate life. Walker is uninterested in the false heroes he encounters in civilian life, and exasperated at how easily society regales the wealthy and powerful with unearned rewards. Anyone who served in war (and those who didn’t) will find these scenes illuminating and comical.
In one scene early in the novel, John is reciting bedtime prayers with his son. “And for the souls in purgatory,” father and son say together. For those coming home from war and others who dodge curveballs in life, we may find ourselves veering in unexpected directions, as the expectation of perfection in a moral sense becomes tarnished. How do you carry on and live heroically knowing you made decisions that cannot be taken back? How do you pick yourself up when it feels like you’re falling behind?
River City One should appeal to any thoughtful reader, whether seasoned combat veteran or one who simply wants to understand how life feels after the signature experience of war. The author’s style is reminiscent of Hemingway. His writing draws you in as though you were a witness to Walker’s life, but manages not to judge the protagonist as he struggles through choices representative of those faced by many returning veterans. Coming home to what we hoped would be a normal life can be more challenging than combat itself.