Watson reached out to me about this way back in July of 2017, well ahead of publication. Unfortunately, due to an impossible work-life balance and other random crap I only just now got around to reading it.*
This memoir tells the tale of Watson and his partner, Dale, as they purchase, restore and then travel the rivers from Texas to Ohio by boat. It touches on family, friendship, urbanization, and a bit of politics.
Honestly, I’m not sure what my thoughts are on the book. There were passages that were incredibly beautiful and Watson’s characterizations/portrayal of the people he met while travelling on his boat were memorable, and yet there were passages that were superfluous or tritely reiterated the sexuality of Watson or incredibly frustrating moments that maybe I missed but seemed like pretty big holes in the narrative.
Two of the biggest things I either missed or weren’t emphasized enough for me were the size of the boat (see tweet below) and why the boat’s name was changed to Betty Jane. I hope the published book had at least one full size photo of the boat for all of us non-boat people out there because I was shocked when I looked it up to see it was the size it was. [Not 100% sure what the hell I was imaging, but for some reason it was smaller.] And all of a sudden I turned the page one chapter pretty early on and the boat had a new name with no explanation (again I could’ve missed this).
There were times where I really wasn’t sure what Watson’s motivation was in writing the book. Was it to share his personal experience growing up, was it to share his experience as a budding sailor, was it to share his experience as a gay man in the south? I’m honestly not sure whether to question Watson or the editor of the work because, frankly these seem like mistakes that could’ve/should’ve come up during the editing process.
At times it felt like Watson was trying to do all of the above, especially with the (what I felt was a) goofy subtitle. This was really highlighted whenever Watson mentioned anything remotely connected to the physical act of sex.
Two scenes come to mind in particular, the one below and then another one where an older seemingly unattractive gentleman drapes his arms over Watson’s shoulders and he gets an erection.
“Billy, the transport driver and himself a calming force who has not moved since these follies began, stirs. He gets up from his truck, squints against the sun in his eyes, walks slowly across the asphalt; a bit of belly peeks out from beneath his tank top.
He places two meaty hands on Betty Jane’s nose and leans forward to fend her from the wall. The cleavage of his buttocks, soft, pale, and rising out of his pants, is distracting, but I have a boat to haul. The thumping stops.” (Ch. 13)
These two scenes added unnecessary internal detail/monologue to what is a well written memoir. The interactions didn’t add anything to the relationships of the characters (unless it was some super subtle foreshadowing for what I talk about next that I totally missed) and they didn’t really serve to provide any deeper insight into Watson.
But what really got me was Chapter 17: The Sexuality of the Three People Involved (photo above). This was a complete throw away chapter for me. It didn’t feel connected to the story, it felt contrived for an “aww” factor, and it almost made me stop reading the book. I’m not sure if Watson was trying to say hey we were having relationship issues (that I haven’t REALLY talked about in depth) or if he wanted to tie into something that is so culturally iconic to gay male history, or if it was something else all together. Don’t get me wrong, I get that what is shared in this chapter is extraordinarily unusual and was written about with incredible tenderness, but it just didn’t work in the story. I don’t know if it was the placement of the chapter or something else, but frankly the entire chapter was anti-climactic (pun intended).
Where I found I had to check my judgement was again connected to Watson’s portrayal of gay men, but that I felt Watson had expert control over. When he talked about wanting to go to the city or to a fancy restaurant or to just clean up, I found myself scoffing.
“I want to have dinner…in a restaurant with incandescent lighting and an atmosphere that does not waft of sweaty Okie and baby shit…I want table service with a menu I can hold in my hand. No Styro-plates, no break-away prison utensils, and no disposable bar wear. I want a reason to put on a fresh shirt, pressed pants, a tie and a jacket. I want to polish my shoes, shave my face, and run pomade through my hair.” (Ch. 5)
I realized that I was doing to Watson, a gay man in the south, that Watson on rare occasion (but far less than you would imagine) did to the people he encountered on and around the rivers he traveled. I was scoffing at the entire region I grew up in (the South) and the country-ness of Watson from my high urban city-gay point of view and I had to check that, because I felt Watson did a great job of portraying most of the people he encountered realistically. His writing evoked a sense of place you would only know if you’ve been to and his vivid portrayals of those he encountered immediately brought the people to life.
Where Watson REALLY got me and the reason I’m glad I finished out the book was with this one passage. It was not an easy passage to read and as I got to the second sentence my body froze and I was forced back to my mom’s death in December of 2018.
“There will be plenty of time while the patient’s bones snap, his kidneys fail, his eyes cloud over, his lungs fill, his toes turn blue, and the rattle—that damn rattle—continues long, long into the wee hours until the fight is gone. The patient surrenders and the breathing gets shallower and the rattle quiets down. Death moves from wherever it has been waiting, takes what it came for, and leaves. I felt it when Mother died. Silence follows. The parent who has always been there is gone. What is left are remains. The shock of its happening—really happening—wards off any question of what happens now. Because there is no now.”(Ch. 16)
The accuracy and tenderness of this one passage cannot be overstated. I too felt it when my mother died and there still is no now.
Recommendation: If you like boats, rivers, or want to know (a bit) about gay men in the south this is a decent read. Even with the overly picky issues I had, it was compelling and Watson has a way with words. I almost wish he would’ve chosen another subject or genre to put his pen to the page as there is so much potential here.
*I received a copy of River Queens from the author in return for my honest opinion. No other goods or money were exchanged.
Opening Line: “She arrived at her usual hour, shortly after six, in a blast of cold air and a flurry of peasant skirt, paisley shawl, bangles and beads and always that topaz ring which some man from South America had given her.”
Closing Line: “It was the America from which we never hope to return.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction)