River Road begins with the tragic death of a gifted young writer, a student at an isolated upstate New York university, on the night of a faculty holiday party. Unable to manage her grief since the death of her daughter, Emmy, who was killed by a drunk driver, Nan Lewis, a teacher at Acheron University, falls prey to the same vice, seeking solace in alcohol when she learns at the party that she has been denied tenure. Nearly home, she hits a deer, ironically in the same spot that her daughter died.
Distraught, Nan attempts to locate the injured animal, passing out in the snowy forest before finally making her way home only to be awakened the following morning by a banging on her door. Sergeant Joe McAffrey informs Nan of student Leia Dawsonís demise the night before, a hit-and-run at the same spot as the deer. McAffrey notices Nanís disheveled state and the open bourbon bottle in her kitchen before escorting her to the place where Dawson was found. Given the damage to Nanís car, she is taken to the police station, interviewed as the prime suspect in Leiaís death. Nanís seemingly endless nightmare has begun, her sense of guilt and faulty memory obscuring the details of the previous night, the haunting dream she had inspiring her own horrified suspicion of causing the girlís premature death. In fiction writing, ďreality was not the final arbiterĒ, but in her current state, Lewis is incapable of separating fact from fantasy.
By the time Nanís possible arrest has hit the college newspaper, inspiring a wave of outrage on the internet, more characters begin to clutter the unfolding investigation. Lewis is approached by a drunken department head, Ross Ballentine, who has troubles of his own since the tragedy. Dottie, the departmentís broken-hearted administrative assistant, has been hopelessly indiscreet, actively spreading gossip and rumors. Nan learns of her studentsí complicity in selling drugs on campus, their meeting place not far from her cottage. In short order, Lewis wallows in an alcoholic fugue, unable to navigate her world as Ross attempts suicide and Leiaís boyfriend, Troy, is targeted as yet another person of interest. The case grows more complicated with each revelation, police sorting through conflicting clues and the continuing dramas of everyone involved.
Once establishing her protagonistís shaky emotional state, Goodman throws everything at the wall, working with what sticks: a plethora of characters and motives that crowd the mystery with potential suspects. While Nan Lewis wallows in the guilt-induced narcissism of the alcoholic, the isolated woods where the hit-and-run occurred
suddenly teem with intruders, from a local drug dealer to another teacher from Acheron living close to Lewis, from the distraught woman responsible for Emmyís death to a ubiquitous Sergeant McAffrey, who returns frequently to Nanís cottage with more questions. Too many random people to sustain believability for my taste, the plot too contrived and the protagonist too often in an altered state to defend herself, but Goodman manages to pull it off in a final dramatic flurry.