The Ties that Bind

(Author Stephen Amidon)
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Reviewed by Stewart O'Nan
Sunday, February 8, 2009


By Stephen Amidon

Farrar Straus Giroux. 276 pp. $25

"What a freak show," a character in Stephen Amidon's Security remarks of another's unstable father after a humiliating scene. Although the speaker herself is detestable, an irredeemable villain, her comment lays bare the deepest fears of Amidon's people: that their messy private lives will burst into public view. But because the author is a nimble satirist, we can count on such disruptions, as readers of his fine Human Capital already know.

On the surface, these characters aren't remarkable or odd, and neither is the setting, the quiet Berkshire town of Stoneleigh, but the major players are in crisis: Edward Inman, proprietor of a home security firm, hasn't slept in weeks and roams the night rather than share a bed with his wife, Meg. Kathryn, his old flame, is trying to reconnect with her college dropout son, Conor. And Walt Steckl, formerly a master electrician, takes painkillers and drinks to quiet his nerves, which were fried in a workplace accident.

As the book opens, an alarm goes off at the house of Doyle Cutler up on the mountain, where the nouveau riche live. Edward drives over to check on it and determines that everything's fine. On his way back through town, he sees Kathryn's son, Conor, stumbling drunk by the side of the road and gives him a ride home. Meanwhile, Steckl is preparing for a court date that he's avoided mentioning to his daughter Mary, afraid she'll be even more ashamed of him. Through a combination of alcohol and circumstance, he was once accused by Meg of a sex crime. As a result, Steckl's reputation was ruined, and Meg became a local advocate, rose to power on a law-and-order platform and now seems poised for even higher office.

But the real complication -- the true action -- doesn't start until more than halfway through the novel. Until then we follow the predictable and -- for a small-town satire -- strangely gooey romance that rekindles between Edward and Kathryn. "I wonder what it would have been like for us," she says during a stolen moment together. "I'm running out of time to make mistakes." Broken from the start, this couple seems to have escaped the author's cynicism.

The same can't be said for the rest of Stoneleigh. Amidon is gleefully snarky about Edward and his alienated wife, Meg. "She hadn't spoken while dressing," he writes, "and they'd pulled away from the house without a word. Tonight should have been one of the good times, but they were behaving with the sullen efficiency of a couple of seniors wolfing down their soup-and-sandwich specials at Applebee's."

Once the exciting action is introduced -- Mary is assaulted offstage, we're not sure by whom -- everyone begins acting very badly as they scramble to protect their interests. Rumors fly and paranoia reigns. Amidon gets in some nice shots at the boom in creative nonfiction, as classmates hold up Mary's workshop piece as proof of her father's guilt, while Edward's and Steckl's suspicions fall on others who saw Mary that night.

Unfortunately, the author bends his characters to accommodate several plot points necessary to his purposes. The denouement turns on ironic coincidence and misunderstanding -- neither a flaw in itself, especially in a satire -- but he also overplays his ending, though by then the reader has anticipated and discounted it already.

Despite the improbable endgame and an over-reliance on types among his supporting cast -- the preoccupied wife, the creepy snob, the sullen teen -- the novel succeeds as an entertainment. It's well-paced and always engaging, if occasionally broad. Thematically, like any good satire, it presents a cautionary tale and dares us to find ourselves in it, and because Amidon is such a fine writer, we do. As in Human Capital, he once again displays his unerring facility for sniffing out the shaky foundations of our lives, showing us what we will selfishly renounce -- trust, intimacy, integrity, reality -- to achieve what we believe is an impregnable security. ยท

Stewart O'Nan's latest novel is "Songs for the Missing."

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