John Waters’ River City One (Simon and Schuster) is a powerful entrée into what we hope is a long, fruitful and developing writing career. The story occupies the spaces in the lives of Veterans that is too often submerged within novels, film and popular media. If you are looking for a safe and romanticized version of the returning Veteran seeking redemption and healing from trauma in a reclamation of high morals and epiphany, this may not be the book for you. If you want to take a bracing walk on the other side of standardized writing surrounding war literature, then John Waters has your number. 

The main character, John Walker, oscillates between various selves and contexts that unfold from an existential crisis. Walker rides the tension between past and present, family man and starstruck lover, someone at the center of public narrative surrounding war and heroics and the surrealist “dirty cloud” that marks the Veteran’s intimacy with death, violence and the ensuing confusion. Waters deftly maneuvers his characters to expose the performative nature of human interaction—literally and figuratively. He strategically juxtaposes the idea of war and returning home in our social imagination with literal theater, as an overcurrent of the book’s theme is performance and authenticity. ‘Ruth’, an opera singer, is inserted as a pseudo-antagonist; her shadow self intermingles explosively and melodramatically with that of the main character, forcing John Walker to, at turns, confront, succumb to and wrestle with lust and ego as an outlet for his existential anxiety. 

Waters utilizes deep character and setting development, while anonymizing the mindscape of modern American life vis-à-vis Waiting for the Barbarians, to gently walk the reader along a path where the true, emotional features of the hero’s homecoming lay. We see homage to moral injury, detached sense of self and belonging, trauma, feelings of inadequacy and cynicism-bordering-on nihilism. Waters’ writing style presents as a welcome, complex and sobering cocktail of differing genres, archetypes and moods. River City One reads as if Jane Austen, The Hurt Locker, Born on the Fourth of July, Office Space, Mad Men, William Styron, and The Bell Jar produced a child, resulting in a critique of the farcical nature of contemporary society and a gritty, punching reality of war—war abroad that takes place in far off, austere environments; and the war internal that can be fought silently while sitting at a computer or driving to your son’s hockey practice. 

Waters uses brazen word choice and cutting scene changes, adding to the emotional shock of events and thoughts that come around the corner quicker than expected. The narrative approach to River City One becomes uncomfortably predictable, in that it follows the emotional, emic pathway of the main character as he navigates various worlds and dilemmas, not a conventional literary plotline. It’s a book you pick up knowing that Waters is going to throw a scene at you that you wish you wouldn’t be able to relate to. 

As a fellow Veteran, I appreciate and applaud the complicated use of characters and scenery, and the lessons the reader stands to gain from John Walker’s tragic story and the culmination of social consciousness, confusion and ambiguity-driven decisions. Often presented and perceived as static, statuesque, memorialized beings, society at large fails to see that the emotions and motivations of Veterans do not solely originate from experiences in war. Rather, a Veteran’s sense of self is drawn from a multitude of life experiences and connections. Military service is one part of our biography, not it’s entirety. 

Ironically, having our individual character and histories lumped together and aligned with convenient social narratives is a shared experience. Realizing the absurdity of social and institutional narratives, seeing through their performance and the limits that role-playing in modern society has on a person’s attempt to achieve authenticity, is enough to explain why a Veteran would have more in common with an ‘outlaw biker’ than his professional colleagues.  

My final word touches on the context of my invitation to review River City One, and the meta-theme of the book that reappears in the very end. As a Veteran and mental health professional who approaches military suicide and mental health from an interdisciplinary and cultural focus, and nearing the end of my graduate training to provide therapy, I find that this book amplifies the urgent need to seek and receive the wisdom of our Veteran community, which is chronically underrepresented in our losing efforts to reduce suicide and improve the holistic health of our servicemembers and Veterans. How can we provide for our Veterans without an unflinching look at the psychological and cultural meanings of war, mental health and suicide? Without deep, and yes, artistic reflection (as opposed to evidence-based or scientific approaches), how can such meanings impact our approach to suicide? 

The answer is, they cannot.  

John Walker sought “home” throughout River City One. His urge to find a sense of purpose or emotional relief led to and away different places, relationships, emotions and thoughts. The reader may be left to wonder if he ever found “home.” Perhaps; we can’t know for sure. But instead of seeing “home” as a finality, the more important existential task and a pilgrimage that the author prompts us to take lay in asking and answering this question: 

What is home?