The McMansion, that derisively nicknamed trophy home of suburban arrivistes, is different things to all people: the darling of building contractors, the forest-guzzling residential equivalent of the SUV to land preservationists.
Among American practitioners of the modern Gothic novel, the McMansion has rarely been rendered with the resplendent gloom of, say, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, or the majesterial melancholy of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. In his smashing followup to his formidable debut novel “Absolution,” however, Patrick Flanery has fashioned a crumbling 21st-century manor that can hold its own among those authors’ most sepulchral, ALLEGORICAL inspirations.
The trappings of “Fallen Land’’ are pure old-school Hollywood. Imagine a housing development that evokes the splashy-cum-sinister Victorian fantasy of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and you have Dolores Woods, a Midwestern subdivision committed to a regressive aesthetic “in which the past was preferable and this country was at its greatest before it tried to tear itself apart in the middle of the nineteenth century.” The community’s pastiche array of gabled roofs and picket fences disguise the jerry-built nature of its construction: pop-up palaces whose yawning spaces and teetering infrastructure “terrify where they were meant to comfort,” the American Dream turned nightmare.
The development’s showpiece, classically enough, has been erected atop the site of tragic events from a darker epoch whose emotional undercurrents will haunt the home’s new tenants, Julia and Nathaniel Noailles. The Noailles have relocated from Boston with their smart, idiosyncratic son Copley (named for the hotel address where he was conceived) in pursuit of snazzier positions: she with a university lab, he with a mega-corporation that powers virtually every private enterprise on earth, including the fascistic private school in which Copley is newly installed.
Nathaniel’s job for the company’s prison division — crafting an anti-rehabilitation system that encourages and exploits prisoner recidivism — links him ironically to his new home’s former owner, Dolores Woods mastermind Paul Krovik, whose control-freak tendencies might have otherwise made him an ideal CEO for Nathaniel’s corporation. As it is, Krovik is already in prison for a crime whose awful details we can only guess at, a smoldering mystery that infuses the largely flashback narrative with a queasy-making overlay of dread.
Krovik is paying the piper for a spiraling accumulation of transgressions reaching back to the inception of his housing development, built off the misfortunes of the property’s lifelong inhabitant, Louise Washington. A slave descendent and career schoolteacher left in arrears upon the death of her husband, Louise has allowed herself to be bilked out of her farmland by Krovik and is left to watch helplessly as her family’s fertile legacy is bulldozed into “Truman Show’’ soullessness.
Louise takes cold comfort when Krovik’s dream community falls victim to his own bad-faith dealings, shoddy construction, and paranoia. Sued by his tenants, abandoned by his wife and forced to sell his dream home at foreclosure, Krovik takes refuge in a bunker apartment he has constructed beneath the house and surfaces discreetly to terrorize the new owners with escalatingly perverse acts of mayhem.
Much like the two South African writers haunted by their memories of Apartheid in “Absolution,” all of the principals in “Fallen Land” are damaged goods, traumatized by familial fissures or betrayals; even Louise (whose unswerving rectitude is the book’s primary weakness) must wrestle with her grown daughter’s failure of empathy. The chain of parent-child injuries would be almost unbearable without the surrogate bond that develops between Louise, whose fervent interior life prompts the author’s most gorgeous prose, and Copley, whose quotidian private-school ordeal is one of the more disturbing post-Orwellian satires of organizational tyranny ever put to paper.
Unsettling as are the horrors that transpire at Copley’s school and under the Noailles roof, there are moments when we wonder whether the author is pulling our legs. Subsidiary characters such as Nathaniel’s boss and Copley’s teachers are cartoons of bureaucratic miscreants, and there are so many in-your-face portents of disaster (dig the splattered ketchup) that it sometimes seems as if Flanery is doing a parody of a textbook foretelling techniques.
Still and yet, antagonists don’t come any creepier than Krovik, who invisibly stalks Copley and his clueless parents like Boo Radley’s evil twin. “He has no clear intention or purpose, no design he is conscious of trying to enact,” writes Flanery of the builder’s nerve-rattling emotional disconnect. “He simply found his body moving, followed it, and is waiting to see what it will do.” When a character refers to Krovik’s nautical skills, saying, “The man knows how to tie a knot,” she could be describing the author. We follow “Fallen Land” on tenterhooks from fearsome opening to shuddery climax, waiting to see what it will do.Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.