Carousel Court: Joe McGinniss Jr

“Remember, babe: every page of the mortgage has TWO signatures on it. But facts and shared responsibility aside: just what IN THE FUCK do you think I’m doing?”

Given the gravity and dimensions of the Great Housing Bubble, I expected, and looked forward to, a flurry of fiction books which showed characters in various phases of the fallout. Perhaps it’s easier to stick 9-11 in novels, since we have a plethora of those in an unpleasant voyeuristic where-were-you-when-it-happened sort of way.

Carousel Court (and the title evokes a great image) from American author Joe McGinniss Jr. follows the toxic marriage of Phoebe and Nick, a young married couple who swallowed the myth that homes were ‘investments,’ wealth machines, and that burying themselves in debt to follow the American Dream at the sacrifice of quality of life is a perfectly acceptable option.

carousel court

The novel opens during the collapse of the housing bubble with Phoebe and Nick living, unhappily, in a new home on Carousel Court in Southern California. They’re tied to  an “interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Seronos.”

They chose the new construction with room to grow. Granite countertops, double-ascending stairways, and a double garage. More stainless steel. More square footage. More landscaping. And the pool: in ground free-form hourglass with ice-blue Quartzon rendering natural stone waterfall with solar heating. The cabana and wet bar. Nick and Phoebe spent as much time as they could to drive up the value. Something else Nick insisted on: the rock-climbing wall. It was simple, clean, and something to make their place pop: One interior wall of their double-ascending stairway hid the bonded two-part application of granite-like panels.

They moved from Boston to California. Phoebe, who imagines her lifeline to success lies in her former sexual relationship with a previous, wealthy, well-connected employer, has a job in pharmaceutical sales. Nick’s promised job vaporized while they were still in Boston, but committed to the house and to California, they went ahead with the move.

So here they are a few years into a nightmare existence. Phoebe spends most on her days on the freeway visiting doctor’s offices, and Nick has a job with EverythingMustGo!, a company which cleans out foreclosed homes. And oh yes, they also have a small child: Jackson, I’ve added him as an aside as Phoebe seems to forget that she’s a mother most of the time.

If it sounds as though I disliked Phoebe, I’d say that’s putting it mildly. This is one fucked-up woman. She swallows most of her samples as she careens across the freeways, tries to boost sales by sending erotic photos of herself to these physician lotharios, and while Nick is the stable force in their marriage, she treats him like dirt.

In snippets, we see how Nick and Phoebe met and where exactly their toxic marriage went wrong….

Carousel Court wasn’t an easy read, and by that I mean it’s painful to read about Phoebe’s addiction to her drug samples and her appalling neglect of her son. There’s a sense of impending doom which arcs over the storyline–one neighbor burns household items in his abandoned pool, another sleeps outside in a tent, armed and ready for intruders or perhaps even bank officials who will soon come knocking. And then there are the homes that Nick empties of abandoned belongings–often high priced items discarded by the owners as they flee from their creditors.

Inside, Nick kicks a couple of dead rats, avoids what seems to be human feces in the same room, with white walls covered in graffiti tags. He could direct guys like Boss does, dividing up the labor, sending pairs of men to certain parts of the house. But they don’t need to be told. So Nick just starts working. He drags three mattresses to the driveway, scoops up children’s underwear and stuffed animals and mayonnaise jars and vacuum cleaners, two hard drives and three cardboard boxes filled with old cell phones. In a bedroom he finds soccer and T-ball trophies. A child’s journal filled with stick-figure drawings and shaky writing lies on the floor.

Nick, eager to drive up his savings account, has devised an illegal scheme whereby he puts tenants who’ve lost their homes (and have bad credit) into foreclosed homes AFTER the houses have been cleaned up and BEFORE they’re auctioned off. In one scene he meets with a shell-shocked couple, portrayed as victims, who’ve lost their home. This scenes skirts the nuances of the crisis–how people took seconds on their homes, blew the money and then whined about how much they owed. The housing bubble (which was predictable IMO) allowed homeowners access to unprecedented amounts of cash–$60,000, $80,000, and for most people, it was just too much temptation. In the past, of course, people just used plastic and declared bankruptcy, but refinancing was the death knoll for homeownership for countless Americans (and yes, all over the globe).

Author McGinniss nails the bleak landscapes, the feeling that it’s Armageddon, but I’m going to add here that while I have massive sympathy for those who bought homes which then plummeted in value, or those forced by life circumstances to sell (abandon) their under water-homes, there are many more dimensions to the housing crisis. McGinnis adds details which hint at the sort of financial incompetence rife in this society. Phoebe and Nick have no money, Phoebe may lose her job, but the extravagances don’t stop (a thousand dollar stroller,) and it’s Phoebe’s unquenchable thirst for the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that lead her down her hellish path. She never knows if there’s any room left on a credit card, but that doesn’t ever make her stop and assess her situation:

The small Korean woman massaging Phoebe’s feet in warm water is completely silent. The nail salon is nearly empty. Phoebe turns off her iPhone, closes her eyes and tries to sleep behind her sunglasses.

I’ve known so many people who lost their homes. One man retired & living on social security bought a prestige home for $800,000 and was SHOCKED when he couldn’t keep up payments. And then there’s someone else who bought his home 20 years ago, refinanced in 2005 for quadruple the home’s original cost and now whines about the payments he doubts he can maintain. But let’s not forget the boat, the Harleys, the classic Corvette, and the brand new truck all in his driveway bought with the cash from his second mortgage. Many people thought they were wealthier than they were. They thought they deserved a better lifestyle, and Carousel Court shows that attitude along with its bitter fallout.

McGinniss takes chances in this novel, and arguably the biggest chance taken is making his characters so unlikable. But making his characters likeable would have been a very different book, so if you pick up Carousel Court, be ready to embrace its John O’Brien-type bleakness which includes showing animals as victims of foreclosure. At times, this is a painful read–not just for Phoebe’s path of self-destruction, but for the way this young couple fight, seem unable to connect over the simplest of issues, and whose relationship boils down to angry texts.

While the ending seemed a little too pat and for this reader, unlikely, given the prior events in the book, I don’t think the sort of life depicted here is any gross exaggeration of how many young families who’ve overspent on a home, struggle daily. The author takes a lot of risks taken here in this edgy, gritty book. I turned the last page and asked myself just when we expected to own so much and accept that it was ok to enjoy life so little?

Review copy

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Carousel Court: Joe McGinniss Jr

  1. In light of your commentary, I suspect I would find this a difficult read. Nevertheless, it’s a great subject for fiction, and it sounds as though the author isn’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable ground.

    On a related note, have you seen the film 99 Homes? A thought-provoking expose of some of the dynamics behind the creation and subsequent collapse of this market, quite strong on the consequences of the fallout for everyday people trying to do the best for their families. Worth a watch if you haven’t caught it already.

  2. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there might be a rash of Housing Bubble novels and I’m sure with Jacqui I’d find it too hard a read. Your last comment is interesting. I can trace exactly the rise in this mindset of entitlement here in Australia from the mid-90s, which coincides with a government that shovelled out lots of tax breaks and bonuses to the middle classes who up until then had managed perfectly well without them – but since then have screamed blue murder if a subsequent govt tries to whittle the bonuses down, which has to happen if the people who are really struggling are not to get whacked.

    • I love to chat to real estate agents and get their stories, so part of my fascination with the topic comes from them. One story: a dump of a house in a ghetto with a chef quality kitchen that cost more than the house is worth.

  3. Tana French has a book on the housing bubble and a ghost ‘luxury estate’ in Dublin, and yes, it certainly is a topic that deserves more books. Somehow, it’s only the bankers that get a little bit satirised (in Capital by John Lanchester, for example), but not so much the others who bought into the myth and have now fallen by the wayside. In some cases, whole countries, like Greece and Spain.

  4. I think reading this might annoy me because I don’t get people who buy houses without having money or without thinking about consequences.

  5. Thank you very much for mentioning that the book shows “animals as victims of foreclosure” — I needed to know that. (The minute I read, in another review of this novel, that the family had a dog, and the starving coyotes were mentioned… I got worried. …)
    I’m not in favor of “trigger warnings” or censorship, of course, but — I only have a limited amount of free time for reading, (and movie-watching etc.) and I guess I have kind of quietly, unofficially, put a personal moratorium on “consuming” literature or any entertainment that’s going to have bad stuff happen to animals, in order to engage my emotions. There are ways to tell a story and engage an audience using wit and observation etc. — & let the cats and dogs live and flourish. (Leave them alone!)
    Enough terrible things may happen, in life, and I decided a while ago to be selective about letting an image of cruelty or horror or sadness into my mind that I’m never going to be able to get OUT of my mind.
    Thanks again for your review.

    • I appreciate your comment. I dislike reading scenes of animal cruelty so much so that even if I want to read a book, but discover that it contains such a scene, I’ll pass. Just finished a book with some scenes in a fishery. I didn’t want to read pages of that. As you say, sometimes you can’t get scenes out of your head. If I suspect content, I go looking for reviews with spoilers. A tell take sign seems to be books with a wide swing of stars.

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