‘Itwas a small town,” we’re told midway through Jonathan Dee’s magnificent new novel, “and everybody was constantly in everybody’s business despite a deep Yankee presumption of self-sufficiency.”
Dee (“Palladio,” “The Privileges”) has always trained a sharp eye on the tricky intersections between private and public life in his fiction. But in “The Locals,” he has outdone himself.
The book is a transcendent look at the battered state of the American psyche in the interim between two key years in our recent history: 2001 and 2008. In 2001, of course, we were blindsided by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In 2008, near fiscal collapse ruined the lives of millions. “The Locals” explores the effect of those events on the fictional town of Howland in Western Massachusetts.
The book pits human ambition and gullibility against the forces of ethical uncertainty in a fraying social fabric. At the same time, it uses a variety of storytelling techniques to illuminate its characters from every possible angle.
Dee starts off with a cunning piece of writerly misdirection, featuring a first-person narrator we’ll never hear from again. He’s in New York as the plaintiff in a lawsuit involving investment fraud. It’s true that he’s been swindled, but he’s no angel himself. He particularly doesn’t like the way the terrorist attack is bringing out sympathy and solidarity in normally aggressive New Yorkers.
Into his orbit wanders housing contractor Mark Firth, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. Mark is down from Massachusetts for the day and as disoriented as everyone else is after the twin towers come down. The two men end up sharing a hotel room. And Mark winds up having his credit card stolen.
With Mark on our radar as someone who isn’t as savvy in his dealings as he ought to be, we return to Howland and enter the novel proper.
Howland, like many American rural communities, is having trouble making a go of it. Its economy depends on summer visitors from Boston and New York: “The locals geared everything toward attracting the moneyed people and then resented them when they came. The rich folks came looking for some country vibe but then seemed to want to protect themselves, to wall themselves off from whatever it was they meant to enjoy or absorb.”
Mark, as a contractor specializing in upscale home renovation, is a de facto emissary between the two worlds. And his latest client is wealthy New Yorker Philip Hadi.
Hadi is certain that another terrorist attack on New York is imminent so he’s moved his family to their Howland summer home, which he’s converting, with Mark’s help, into a fortress-like, year-round residence. When he unexpectedly runs for local office as the town’s First Selectman, his plan for financially beleaguered Howland is paternal simplicity itself.
“I want this town to succeed without losing its character,” he says. “I want it to thrive. In order to see that happen, I’ll meet temporary or emergency needs with my own money if necessary. I can afford it. This place means that much to me. But of course this is a democracy, and it’s up to you.”
The town’s citizens take him up on his offer. But it isn’t long before disgruntlement sets in among some residents — especially after Hadi, as an anti-vandalism measure, sets up the same kind of surveillance equipment along Main Street that he installed in his own home.
What ulterior motive might this “Benevolent Billionaire” have for taking such an invasive interest in Howland’s affairs? Is the town really setting its own agenda?
Hadi’s public relationship with Howland and his personal relationship with Mark (who sees him as a potential mentor) comprise just one vital thread of “The Locals.” Other key players include Mark’s wife, Karen, who lacks faith in the latest real-estate schemes of her “handsome, sweet, feckless, stupid, thoughtless, naïve” screw-up of a husband; Mark’s brother Gerry, who vents all his complaints about Hadi and Howland on his pseudonymous blog; and their sister Candace who’s understandably peeved at her brothers for saddling her with most of the care for their failing parents.
Then there’s the local newspaper editor who has “no taste whatsoever for confrontation, neither on the page nor in person” (not a great trait in a journalist); Mark’s belligerent hired hand who openly wonders whether violence could be the answer to dealing with Mark’s misbehaving tenants; and a postmaster who’s cooking the books on his travel reimbursements (“there was a line you had be careful not to cross but you felt like a coward if you didn’t inch as close to it as you could”).
All these characters are having trouble believing in their shot at the American dream. Even Hadi doesn’t have much faith in the system. (“Consensus,” he quips, “isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”)
Dee circles all around his players, bringing alive their inner lives and interconnections. In one long chapter, he follows their actions in a single continual flow of viewpoint-shifting prose, subtly shifting focus from one to another over a 75-page span. In another, the narrative is punctuated by news items, town-meeting minutes, restaurant menus, real-estate ads, and Gerry’s blog postings, each shedding a light on Howland’s shifting demographics and growing undercurrent of discontent.
Dee’s observations of how “the vast steppes of the internet” subvert Howland’s small-town confines is central to the book. Add to it his descriptive gifts and wry humor (“She had only a hazy idea of what yoga was: like contortionism without applause”), and you have the total package.
With rueful sympathy and acuity, “The Locals” conjures all the cares and quandaries of flawed characters coping in a faith-corrosive world.
By Jonathan Dee
Random House, 383 pp., $28
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.