Small-town white men who feel the world owes them something and hasn’t come through. While some are more rabid than others, they harbor a collective rage that makes them an imminent danger to themselves and others, especially when they argue with their wives and ex-wives or trust their money and votes to con artists.
Now there’s a storyline for our times. Jonathan Dee’s The Locals, his seventh novel, set amongst the mostly working-class families of Howland, Massachusetts, a fictitious town nestled in the scenic Berkshire Mountains, is testimony to his finely-tuned ear for the anger that has gripped its tentacles around this American demographic.
That, on the surface, is the theme of The Locals. But, taken with a larger body of Dee’s work, it’s more a continuation of a deeper lament about being adrift in 21st century America.
Previously, in his highly acclaimed novel The Privileges, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and winner of the 2011 Prix Fitzgerald and the St. Francis College Literary Prize, Dee took on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. In that novel, hedge-fund manager Adam Morey gets very, very rich, partly through some shady insider trading that he maneuvers with such cold-blooded expertise. He never gets caught.
Excessive wealth makes it easy for Adam and his wife, Cynthia, and their two children, April and Jonas, to live a life closed to outsiders and devoid of memory. Yet, Adam and Cynthia appear as largely inaccessible individuals uninterested in the past right from the first chapter, which takes place at their wedding. It’s the kind of big messy wedding that in some families might be the scene of both sentimental reminiscences and old grudges, but even at this stage of their lives, right out of college, the about-to-wed couple have decided to keep their families out of their lives, while their friendships are mostly frat-party bonds that aren’t resilient enough to withstand adulthood.
The townspeople in The Locals have a similar aversion to acknowledging the past—which negates, say, trying to gain some self-awareness through psychotherapy—and to a large extent, an aversion to one another. They do business together and have falling outs. They marry and divorce. They have affairs for temporary solace, then drift apart. Agreeable conversations are in short supply, and adults never spend time hanging out with friends—in reality, a lifeline in small towns. They have nothing to believe in, and, as one character sees it, that shows up in a willingness to believe anything. They’re especially willing to believe that others are out to get them.
Dee has a signature technique of weaving in and out of myriad points of view, taking us into the heads of about ten different characters in The Locals and changing perspective every few pages. The result is occasionally a Rashomon effect, depicting different interpretations of life, but the greater result is a moral ambiguity that’s so pervasive it forces the reader to wonder what’s happening to us as a collective species.
It’s as if the characters have a bit of the African wildcat in their makeup; that’s the solitary feline thought to be the ancestor of the housecat, and in Dee’s fiction it sometimes feels as if humankind is evolving in the opposite direction, from social, tribal animals into a cacophony of alienated misanthropes.
Though there are many voices in the novel, the central character is Mark Firth, a nice-looking, ambitious contractor who, as the story opens in the days just after September 11, 2001, has lost his life savings to a shyster investment manager who promised him returns of nine percent. He’s taken an empty train down to New York to meet with a lawyer who is representing all of the people who’ve been swindled, except that the lawyer has joined the throngs who are staying away from their Manhattan offices.
We see post-9/11 Manhattan not from Mark’s perspective, but from that of another victim who lost his money, an unnamed loner who speaks in first person about how “that whole kumbaya, brotherhood-of-man thing” that has people hugging strangers in those days just after the attack makes him jittery. He doesn’t think much of Mark, either: in him he sees a “fucking small-town Mr. Clean... a rube, a sap, a greedy fucking imbecile, and I’m just as bad as he is.” The opening chapter, titled Chapter 0, like Ground Zero, functions as an overture, setting the tone for the jaded future that Mark is about to face.
Eight years pass in the course of the novel, taking the residents of Howland from post-9/11 paranoia through the real estate boom and ending with the country in economic collapse. Amidst these local folk is a newcomer whose true thoughts are inaccessible to them, as well as to the reader, Phillip Hadi, a hedge fund manager from New York.
Hadi was one of the rich summer people, but now he fears a second terrorist attack and has moved his wife and children, against their will, to the peaceful mountains. He hires Mark to build a security system around his house—and the job, as Mark sees it, presents an opportunity to try and figure out what gives some people a natural affinity for getting rich.
Circumstances of birth, education, MBA’s, and connections don’t factor into Mark’s equation. And who can blame him when he’s grown up hearing that anyone can live the American dream? He figures it must be his fault that wealth keeps eluding him. “So much of my life seems so bound, so limited. I want to reimagine myself...I feel like something is lacking in me, in terms of personality, in terms of vision,” he confesses to his rich client over a beer.
The advice Hadi gives him: “Houses are an asset, whose value you understand, and know how to increase.” Uh oh.
The town changes a lot in the course of eight years, partly at the hands of Hadi, though it turns out he wasn’t the first rich man to build a house in Howland and distort things. The town’s biggest tourist attraction is a 19th Century estate called Caldwell House, built by a steel and railroad baron named Winston Caldwell who, according to much-whitewashed lore, wanted a place where his ailing wife could breathe fresh air.
Early in the story, the town is honored to learn that Caldwell House has been added to the state’s official Register of Historic Places. In reality, that means the mansion and its 16 acres come off the tax rolls. It is Hadi who steps in, volunteering to be First Selectman and subsidizing the town in all kinds of ways with his own money.
But his power to be generous arouses outrage from Mark’s already embittered brother Gerry, who starts a blog, under a pseudonym, that seems to grab bits and pieces from every right-wing and left-wing conspiracy theory floating through the air. “Did anybody notice that at some point... the Benevolent Billionaire who rules us has put up surveillance cameras over our heads in town?” Gerry rails in his blog. “Our enemies are coming for us! Meanwhile, your real enemy is the one who claims he alone can protect you... I am so tired of the whole narrative about how billionaires are so morally pure, how they can’t be bought! YOU are what he has to gain. Power is its own end.... He won’t be happy until Howland is a kingdom.”
In fact, Gerry turns out to be somewhat right; Hadi has very little use for democratic consensus.
More than almost any other contemporary novelist, Dee understands the eroding effects of a life in which money propels most of a person’s waking thoughts—whether it’s too much money or not enough. But which came first, the eroded psyche or the thoughts of money? It becomes uncomfortably evident that no policy aimed at income equality would help these characters.
In The Locals as well as in The Privileges, the characters lack both rich inner lives as well as close human bonds, and they fill the resultant void with the pursuit of money, whether for power or survival or both. What Dee risks, though, is coming across as stingy with his emotional investment in his characters. He gives them anger and alienation that, while deftly tailored to each personality, swallows up their capacity for equally complicated human pursuits such as love, laughter, passion, even sorrow.
Nowhere is that stinginess more striking than toward the end of the novel, when Dee contrasts the self-absorbed anger and ennui of the grownups against the not-quite-anchored idealism that Mark’s daughter, Haley, has developed.
I won’t spoil the ending except to say that what happens is as unresolved as life itself—a little nasty graffiti drives Hadi back to New York, leaving the town to fend for itself—yet also satisfying, in the sense that getting into Haley’s head as she grows into a strong-willed teenager is worth the price of admission, somewhat literally, seeing as how she gets a lesson in life through a showdown at Caldwell House. That is where Haley’s mother and Mark’s by-then ex-wife, Karen, unexpectedly comes through as her supporter, even though Karen stands to lose her job by doing so. A glimmer of love might be all it takes to give this girl a life with a purpose. It certainly closes the novel with a more intricate rhythm than the lonely roar of rage.
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