Category Archives: Dee Jonathan

The Locals: Jonathan Dee

“There was no earthly specimen more out of touch with reality than a New Yorker. People who lived on an island and paid a million dollars for a bedroom.”

The Locals from Jonathan Dee is a remarkable novel which captures American life in the decade following 9-11: the shock, the aftermath, economic stagnation, the real estate boom and subsequent bust. All of this is seen through a handful of characters who live in Howland, a town in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts.  Regular readers know that I groan at appearances of 9-11 in novels, but here, in The Locals, Jonathan Dee hits just the right note.

The novel begins on 9-11 with a rather nasty narrator, a lab worker, who subsequently drops out of the novel. He’s on his way to see a lawyer to seek recompense from an investor who fleeced him of over 200K. Also in New York that day is contractor Mark Firth, who has traveled from Howland to see the same lawyer, for the same reason.  This early section sets the scene for the stratification, the money and class divides–of American society–a theme that lies at the heart of the novel.

the locals

Mark Firth returns home to Howland, only to find that he’s welcomed like a surviving hero. And this is one of the things I loved about this novel-the way Dee captures the 9-11 feeling in the country. For a brief moment, everyone in the country seemed to come together in collective grief.

Everybody was all frightened, but really that was just a way of trying to make the whole thing more about themselves, which it wasn’t. Either you were actually there when it happened or it was something you watched on TV, period. But whenever something major happens it’s like everybody wants their little piece of the suffering. People had no idea what was coming next. That’s true I guess–when something as fucked up as that happens, something you weren’t even imagining, it wakes up your imagination pretty good–but still, they were just overdoing it, I’m sorry. Get over yourselves. You weren’t there, it didn’t happen to you . 

Mark returns home to face a bleak future. Contracting work has dried up, and as for getting his stolen money back, there’s not much hope of that. Mark’s wife Karen, who hasn’t forgiven him for losing all their savings to a con man, temporarily puts her grievances on hold in light of 9-11, and, as she sees it, her husband’s close call with terrorism.

When billionaire Philip Hadi decides to make his summer Howland home his permanent residence, things begin to improve for Mark. Hadi, who has left New York following 9-11, is obsessed with making his house ‘safe.’ He hires Mark for various security jobs, and then settles into the town taking up local politics. After a comment from Hadi, Mark decides to stop building and improving houses, and instead begins picking up houses at auction and then flipping them for profit. He’s joined in this venture by his brother Gerry.

Most of the novel is concerned with Mark’s family and that includes his aging parents who haven’t saved enough for retirement, Mark’s single sister, vice principal Candace, and Mark’s brother, Gerry, whose work at a real estate company comes to an abrupt end following a corrosive affair with a married coworker.

Hadi’s presence in town begins to sharply divide residents. Hadi, who takes up political office, begins to suck up the town’s deficit , but that comes at a cost, and Gerry in particular, who has extreme libertarian views, sees Hadi’s generosity as what it is–a benevolent dictatorship. Using the anonymity of his blog, Gerry tries to flail citizens into action, but most people are far too happy taking Hadi’s handouts to complain or question Hadi’s decisions.

As the plot continues, Mark’s daughter, Haley, who serves as the battleground for her parents’ toxic marriage, grows up in a new America–an America in which the one-percent live in their own stratosphere while city budgets face shortfalls, small businesses fold, libraries close and homes across America fall into foreclosure at unprecedented rates. Howland has its year-round residents, the locals, who, in many cases, depend on income from the wealthy second home residents. Some of the businesses that spring up for the wealthy are totally inaccessible to the average local: the phenomenally expensive yoga retreat centre that’s booked up for almost a year in advance:

Rich people who led lives full of manufactured stress. Women who worked harder than they needed to, or women who didn’t work at all. Their hyper-refined problems expanded to fill the shape of expensive solutions.

Or the pretentious destination restaurant that serves 16 or 17 course meals, so expensive that the locals who can scrape up the money can come for a “special occasion.” Diners are given a booklet and a “small pencil, in case they want to record, for memory’s sake any details or impressions.”

Mark Firth tries to rise in American society in the shadow of Hadi, and we see Hadi, a man who has no emotional investment in the community, try to transform Howland into a personal fiefdom. In spite of the fact that Hadi is a prominent figure in the plot, his motives remain cloudy. The wealth he drops into Howland improves life, but there’s a cost that some of the locals are unwilling to pay. Hadi states that “democracy doesn’t really work anymore,” and then consciously or unconsciously proves he’s right.  The novel takes the town of Howland as its crucible and asks some important moral questions about the sustainability and future of American society. This is a story that begins in collective grief, purpose and cooperation and ends in divisiveness and an unsettling, uncertain future

Review copy.

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A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

Fellow blogger Kevin from Canada read, reviewed and enjoyed The Privileges, an earlier novel from American author, Jonathan Dee, and so when I saw a new title A Thousand Pardons from the same author, I knew I wanted to read it. Kevin had mixed feelings about The Privileges–enjoying it immensely at first (well this is my interpretation at least) but then feeling not-so-happy with an ending which he felt did not live up to the novel’s excellent opening. I say all this because I had the same reaction to A Thousand Pardons, a novel that had an absolutely tremendous start with a gripping plot, but then the novel appears to move into a different zone, dropping the storyline I so badly wanted to continue. And then the ending…well I’m still chewing it over, and now after reading A Thousand Pardons and re-reading Kevin’s review of The Privileges, I’m about to conclude that the ambiguous ending which I found disappointing, was a decision by the author–not to disappoint us, of course (who wants to do that to a reader?), but to show the emptiness and disenchantment of the American dream.

a thousand pardonsNow to the plot…

The novel begins with a view of a marriage–Ben, a New York attorney commutes to work from a gorgeous home in a small affluent town while his wife, Helen, is a stay-at-home mother to their 12-year-old adopted Chinese daughter, Sara. Ben pulls impossibly long hours at the office, arriving home just long enough to grab something to eat, walk around “like the walking dead,” and go to bed. Not much of a life.  Things have deteriorated to the point that Helen is trying to retrieve their relationship and their 18-year-marriage through therapy. Ben arrives home later than usual one night–a “passive-aggressive” move on Ben’s part, Helen is certain, and they barely make it to their therapist’s office for their weekly session and an unpleasant revelation:

“Because it’s all so unsurprising.” Ben said, very much as if he hadn’t heard anyone else’s voice. “I’m scared of it. I’m scared of every single element of my day. Every meal I eat, every client I see, every time I get into or out of the car. It all frightens the shit out of me. Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? That is what it’s like for me every day. That is what it’s like for me sitting here, right now, right this second. It’s like a fucking death sentence, coming back to that house every single night. I mean, no offense.”

“No offense?” Helen said.

Helen knows that she and Ben should divorce, but she’s in that mode of punishment and endurance:

She knew what the right thing to do was. Dismantle it together: help him find a new place, work out the money, sign whatever needed to be signed, put on a united front for poor Sara, who’d already had two parents abandon her, after all. But for once in her life Helen didn’t want to do it. Why should she make it easy for him? She’d made everything easy for him for eighteen years, and he’d repaid her by making an explosive, weepy public display of his horror at the very sight of her. Screw the right thing. If he hated her so much, if life with her was such a death sentence, then let’s see him be a man about it, for once, and devise his own escape.

I happen to be a believer in the idea that some people (with the exception of natural disaster, disease, or just plain bad luck) get what they want by hook or by crook. They may not be honest or straightforward about getting what they want, but somehow things just seem to “happen.” Back to that passive-aggressive thing. In Ben’s case, he seeks freedom from his boring, predictable life without taking firm, direct action, and just how he achieves his desire through sabotage takes up the first, gripping section of the novel. Shortly, and with virtually no warning except the fact that her marriage has been on the rocks for some time, Helen finds herself seeking work, and this section, covering Helen’s subsequent career takes up quite a chunk of the novel.

The section dealing with Ben’s self-destructive sabotage of his life is unbelievably good–after all a married father who’s affluent, and with a secure, enviable career has a lot to lose, but there’s also a lot of protective padding. So it’s logical that Ben is going to have to sabotage all his advantages in a spectacular way if he wants to jettison from his established life. But then the novel moves on, leaves Ben and follows Helen’s job hunt in New York. The move from Ben’s gripping, incredibly insane actions to the plod of a job hunt is a tremendous change of pace, and one that is not without its narrative problems. Helen has been out of the job market for over 10 years, and even when she did work she was a sales manager at Ralph Lauren. Somehow, with no experience whatsoever, she lands a decent job at a pathetically small PR company. I had problems with swallowing that part of the plot and could only conclude that she was hired because her new boss must have fancied her. My annoyance with this plot development was premature as the author addressed this issue later on.

As a reader I had also issues with Ben’s mental shift as he morphs from a man adamantly denying a mid-life crisis and making a complete idiot out of himself into the one character in the book who seems to have it all together. I began to wonder if he was on medication as he stoically swallows his pride and suffers through humiliation after humiliation in some sort of penance. Meanwhile Helen takes on the PR management of the sins of a small business owner, mega corporations, a film star and even the catholic church. She’s spent the last ten years of her life being the perfect mother and the perfect (here I invoke that rather sickening word,) “homemaker.” I suspect that Helen was as sick of her life as Ben was; he just expressed it better. Once in the work world, Helen gets a taste of just what it’s like to juggle parenthood with career demands, live with a judgmental teenager, spend hours on a ridiculous commute and come home too exhausted to do anything except sling take-out meals on the table for dinner.

 In spite of its flaws, this was a compulsive, addictive read which I finished in two sittings. While the ending left me scratching my head (back to Kevin’s response to The Privileges), some of the scenes and the characters were phenomenal. Jonathan Dee certainly has a knack for recreating the suffocation of upper-middle-class life with its markers of success, gleeful pettiness at failure and its delight in gossiping about those who’ve fallen off the middle-class wagon of respectability. There aren’t many likeable people here, and most of them are as sad and lost as Helen and Ben. One of my favourite characters was the rather bitter, deeply unhappy Bonifacio, hired by Ben–a hungry small-town lawyer who rents a space above a hardware store. He can’t hide just a sliver of glee at his client’s downfall:

When she looked over at Bonifacio, he wore a smirk like he was enjoying a bad TV show. How he must have hated guys like Ben, Helen thought–lawyers who rode off to Manhattan every morning while he climbed the stairs behind the hardware store and tried to act outraged over whatever sad grievance one of the locals might bring in.

So, not a perfect novel, but Jonathan Dee is certainly treading in the literary footsteps of Richard Yates with his themes of inertia, the dreary treadmill of routine, the slow death of romance and love, and the utter disenchantment with the American Dream.  Dee offers us a frightening, claustrophobic look at the American Dream which has somehow or another turned into the American Nightmare–Ben and Helen, initially at least, have everything we are supposed to strive for, and yet Dee shows us that this soulless existence is something no sane person would want, and as it turns out Ben and Helen don’t want it either. The conclusion leaves us with the uncomfortable, hollow feeling that there’s not much to replace our pathetic social goals and meaningless social status markers.

Review copy

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