Patrick Flanery’s first novel, “Absolution,” was a fascinating exploration of the ways South Africa’s violent past shadows its present. His follow-up, the thrilling if slightly overstuffed “Fallen Land,” takes those same questions and grafts them onto a much more expansive depiction of contemporary America. Here, Flanery draws a line between early-20th-century race riots and the modern security state.
Set on the outskirts of an unidentified city in the Midwest, the novel opens during the Red Summer of 1919. Incensed by the alleged assault of a 12-year-old white girl, a mob descends upon the farm of the mayor, only to find him in the arms of one of his black laborers, George Freeman.
The mob hangs both men, but afterward, when the mayor’s will is read, it is discovered that he made George his beneficiary, and so, by a quirk of fate, the farm passes out of the mayor’s family and into the hands of George’s brother and his wife.
Having established the contested nature of this fallen land’s history, the action shifts to the present. No longer able to maintain the farm, George’s granddaughter sells it to Paul Krovik, a property developer with a vision of a community sustained by the belief that “the past was a better place, that by living in spaces that reminded them of their country’s early history they could become different and better people.” But when Paul’s vision outstrips his finances, the banks foreclose and Paul disappears.
Except the increasingly unbalanced Paul hasn’t disappeared. Instead, he has retreated to a secret underground bunker adjoining his former home. He emerges at night to spy upon the new owners, Nathaniel and Julia Noailles, who arrive from Boston with their autistic son, Copley, so that Nathaniel can take a position with a sinister transnational security company called EKK.
“Fallen Land” illustrates the complex and often unpredictable ways that the past interacts with the present. In part, this unpredictability is structural, stemming from the use of multiple perspectives, fluidly shifting among characters. But the narrative’s instability is also inherent. For while “Fallen Land” superficially resembles a piece of literary realism, it is, in fact, a complex hybrid of thriller elements, literary techniques, near-future science-fictional satire and the portentous, semi-mythical mode that is now synonymous with literary historical fiction. In the opening pages, for instance, the cottonwood tree from which the mayor and George have been hanged subsides into a sinkhole, “its entire height and the men bound and hanging from it swallowed up by the earth.”
Not surprisingly, given such a heady brew, there are places where the tension between these competing elements is a little too evident. Certainly, the scenes in the final quarter, in which EKK’s CEO outlines his vision of a society where privacy has been entirely eliminated, seem to take leave of the reality that grounds the rest of the story. But for the most part, the book is downright exhilarating. To an extent, this is a function of its energy and stylistic restlessness. Some of the best moments are to be found in set pieces, such as Copley’s minute-by-minute description of his days and Julia’s deliberately dispassionate, mock-academic analysis of her collapsing marriage.
But the real excitement of “Fallen Land” is not stylistic. Instead, it is the sustained fury that Flanery brings to his depiction of contemporary America. For as the novel ricochets between the Noailles’ troubled marriage, the predatory ambitions of EKK and the escalating threat of the increasingly disturbed Paul, it paints a chilling picture of a society deranged by violence, paranoia and its own fantasies of self-reliance.
In the end, these fantasies and the cycles of dispossession and violence they fuel lie at the heart of this powerful and often dazzling novel. As the final pages suggest, the sins of the past cannot ever be fully expunged; they continue to reverberate down through time.
Bradley’s most recent novel is “The Resurrectionist.”
By Patrick Flanery
Riverhead. 406 pp. $27.95