The Old School masters of suburban fiction, including John Cheever, John Updike, and John Irving, fixed many of their bleak tales along the Northeast corridor, imbuing the spacious homes and ratcheting sprinklers of the middle class with an undercurrent of menace and dread. There was a beguiling shrewdness to these narratives, as the protagonists steered into adultery, betrayal, and middle-aged angst, taking a perverse delight in the wreckage of their lives. In contrast, Gen X writers, recognizing this territory as their own — and knowing little else — have often replaced dread with a self-absorbed naivete, and elimi-nated shrewdness on behalf of irony and narcissism.
First-time novelist Ethan Hauser attempts to merge these versions of suburbia in “The Measures Between Us,” which follows a disparate group of people awaiting a massive rainstorm in the towns west of Boston. Most of these individuals barely know each other, but Hauser details how the impending storm and a local tragedy connect his characters, for better or worse. “Confusion . . . breeds a kind of camaraderie. Everyone is in the uncomfortable position of not knowing anything, so people surrender information right as they get it.”
Hauser’s story unfolds over a few months in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when Rich “El Guapo” Garces was pitching for the Red Sox. At the story’s center is Henry Wheeling, a young Boston University psychology professor, whose wife, Lucinda, is expecting their first child. When Wheeling’s former high school woodworking teacher, Vincent Pareto, calls on Wheeling for advice regarding his troubled daughter, Cynthia, what ensues will leave several parties doubting things they’d long taken for granted. Hauser is particularly adept at creating tiny, interior moments, like Cynthia finding comfort in her father’s “reliable scent of freshly sawed wood” and the expectant Lucinda Wheeling, marveling at the “holy mystery” and “dark, shadowy printouts of her sonograms.”
But Hauser, an editor at The New York Times, has a difficult time handling the larger imperatives of the novel, especially the trajectory of his plot and the accumulation of detail necessary in realistic fiction. Early on, he introduces a reclusive former Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist named Frank Kingman, who is apparently collecting environmental data through “mysterious metal boxes and black cables” buried in the forest, as well as the research Wheeling is conducting into peoples’ recollection of previous flooding and their reaction to the idea of climate change. These intriguing plot points are mentioned prominently but end up leading nowhere. Hauser also has problems rendering the blue-collar world: shop teachers, janitors, cops, and carnival workers. By exalting these characters — and totally missing the workaday cadences of their natural speech — he ends up trivializing them. A segment describing a child’s autism is particularly grating, where a doctor lectures the frightened parents “about what was chewing up their son’s brain,” sending them home to get drunk.
Hauser grew up in Brookline and inserts many local references, from WEEI talk-show rants to the “charming time-capsule restaurants” of the North End. But this is a TV movie version of Greater Boston, where you can exit the Mass. Pike into New Hampshire and there’s ample parking at BU. The novel’s principal locales, including Newton, BU, and northern Massachusetts, are not easily distinguished from any other town, school, or region. This is unfortunate, since a well-realized landscape and rounded characterizations are essential to the “felt life” of such an intimate story.
Ultimately, Henry Wheeling’s affair with a lovely young student, and his cavalier advice to his former teacher, lead him and several other characters to the brink of disaster. But the anticipated climax of the story occurs offstage with little explanation, turning it into a red herring. In the end, Wheeling’s peculiar mix of cluelessness and self-pity goes mostly unpunished, and the rising sense of dread meant to peak along with the storm merely ebbs away.Jay Atkinson’s most recent book is “Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man.” Follow him on Twitter @Atkinson_Jay.