Jonathan Dee’s thoughtful novels may not be ripped from the headlines, but his plots hug the contours of our era. In such books as “The Privileges,” which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, Dee writes about the way financial upheaval shapes modern relationships and morals.
His prescient sensitivity has never been more unnerving than in his new novel, “The Locals,” which describes a billionaire running for office and taking over a small town. Given that premise, it’s tempting at first to interpret this story as some kind of parable of our present political plight, but the timing makes that improbable. After all, a complex novel takes years to compose, and, more important, there’s no parallel between Dee’s hyper-competent billionaire and the one flailing around in the White House. Instead, “The Locals” feels attuned to the broader currents of our culture, particularly the renewed tension between competing ideals of community and self-reliance.
The story begins in New York during the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with a disquieting portrait of the way that cataclysm affected people who were not directly affected. One such person is Phil Hadi, a famously wealthy man who removes his family from the dangers of Manhattan and settles in the Berkshires. Hadi loves the quaint town of Howland, its local diner, its little library, its privacy. When a seat opens on the Howland board of selectman, he wins the election by promising to forgo a salary, turn back a recent tax break and carry many of the town’s expenses himself.
We’re programmed to be suspicious of such largesse, and there’s something unnerving about Hadi’s eagerness to brush aside the messiness of democracy with the efficiency of his own vast fortune. “Democracy doesn’t really work anymore,” he says matter-of-factly. But what are his real motives? Why has he installed so many surveillance cameras in town? Dee may lure us down the dark alley of dystopia, but this is Western Mass., not Westworld. As unlikely as Hadi’s benevolent government seems, “The Locals” never slips into the political paranoia of Don DeLillo. In fact, the novel is not really about Hadi at all. It’s about the locals who feel the gravitational distortion of his wealth.
Dee focuses with needling precision on three generations of the Firth family. Mark Firth is a local contractor who recently lost money to a fraudulent investor. His wife, Karen, can’t shake her corrosive doubts about his financial competence, which only makes Mark more determined to succeed. There’s a masochistic quality to the novel’s determination to keep this toxic marriage limping along under a steady drizzle of resentment, disappointment and suspicion.
Meanwhile, Mark’s parents are struggling with dementia and fury. His sister is climbing down the ladder of success. His daughter is slipping out of reach. And there are lots of other unhappy characters, too, all elegantly choreographed in a dance of discontent. One long chapter, in particular, moves like a single miraculous film shoot, abiding with each person for a few pages until he or she meets someone else, at which point the narrative shifts over to that new perspective.
With this little town, this idyllic-looking version of America, Dee has constructed a world — harrowing but instructive — where no one feels content. While doing some work on Hadi’s summer house, Mark confesses to his wealthy employer, “I feel like something is lacking in me, in terms of personality, in terms of vision.” When Hadi tells him not to be dismissive of the good work he does, Mark objects: “But this is America. . . . You’re supposed to better yourself. You’re supposed to think big. Right?”
That national ideology provides the hydraulic pressure that animates these characters. Determined to be more than a mere contractor, Mark takes on serious debt and starts buying up foreclosed homes. It’s just one of many enterprises that Dee describes so effectively, teasing out the way the business of getting and spending pitches these characters against one another, dissolving the bonds of community, even family, in the fight for financial survival. If anything, Hadi’s generous realm only makes these people more suspicious of each other.
Which, frankly, is a little exhausting. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna to believe that there is such a force as love in the world, and graciousness and selflessness, too. But those qualities are missing in these characters, as though they were suffering some kind of moral vitamin deficiency. Hardly any of these people are allowed even a moment of inspiration or elevation. Mark’s sister realizes only that she’s “terrified of losing a life she couldn’t defend and didn’t really enjoy.” In this book, that qualifies as a healthy breakthrough.
But almost without exception, the men are congenitally resentful, clinging to a hollow doctrine of self-reliance that they use to club everyone else. They all possess what Dee calls “a highly attuned radar for condescension.” Mark’s best carpenter lets petty grievances impale his own career. And Mark’s ne’er-do-well brother grows wholly consumed with everyone else’s alleged laziness and ignorance. Howland becomes a place poisoned with rage. Again and again, these guys imagine they’re victims of a society infested with irresponsible people making false claims to victimhood — “the takers in this world.” Organize that blinding anger into a political party, and you’ve got a town (or a nation) that would rather destroy itself than risk someone somewhere getting anything he doesn’t deserve.
Amid the heat of today’s vicious political climate, “The Locals” is a smoke alarm. Listen up.
Ron Charles is the editor Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Jonathan Dee
Random House. 383 pp. $28