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Happyland by J. Robert Lennon

 Author J.Robert Lennon struggled to get Happyland published–astonishing really when you consider just how good an author he is, but apparently publishers feared lawsuits for implied connections between the very fictional Happyland and the real life story of Pleasant Rowland and the town of Aurora, in New York state. In the introduction, Lennon explains his multiple thwarted attempts to get this novel published adding that “if you’d told me in 2003 that this novel wouldn’t be read in its entirety until 2013, I would probably have stopped writing it–and if you’d told me why, I might have sought out, at least for a while, a less heartbreaking profession than novel writing.”

This is clearly a satire, a work of fiction, and yes inspired by an idea. The author states that he didn’t intend to “write anything remotely controversial,” but he got an idea from real life and ran with it. Unfortunately, publishers were worried about “unthreatened lawsuits,” and when the author refused to change some of the story basics, the book was shelved, appearing only in serial form in Harper’s in 2006. What a great shame that a writer of Lennon’s calibre had to wait so long for the novel to make it to readers, but here it is at last, and it’s well worth the wait….

happylandThe main character of Happyland is middle-aged Happy Masters, married to millionaire mogul James Masters, and while the marriage “dulled by familiarity” isn’t love-y in any sort of traditional sense, it’s successful mainly due to the fact that Happy and James lead their own lives and their meetings are infrequent, “explosive collisions, cataclysmic unleashings of pent-up emotion. Where once they argued, they now fought, open-handed and filthy-mouthed.” 

Happy “founder, CEO and creative mastermind of Happy Girls, Inc” formed the doll company 25 years earlier when “weary of her duties as a bride of privilege,” she found a broken antique doll and began a collection. Happy’s sad childhood never included a doll, and this one precious doll grew to a large, expensive collection, and then she formed Happy Dolls–a company which eventually included an entire line of historic dolls “decked out in period clothes,” and included storybooks with cheesy, abbreviated versions of history. No one could have predicted Happy’s phenomenal success. She intuited what children wanted–probably because her own childhood was spent in longing. Some of her dolls are so popular that “near riots” occur when stock runs low.

There were ninety-two different dolls currently in production, and one hundred fifty-six discontinued models, which had their own separate category on e-Bay. There were websites conferences, clubs. There was fan fiction. There for full-size clothes for real girls to wear, There was an animated cartoon and a live-action dramatic series. There had been one movie Lily and Sally, critically panned but big box office.

Some people overcome horrendous childhood experiences to become almost inhuman, and that’s Happy Masters in a word. Happy was an orphan, “raised by a bitter, alcoholic aunt,” and she learned to “[endure] the inventive maliciousness of two older cousins.” This rags-to-riches story may sound a bit like Cinderella, and we’d expect a happy ending. In a way, Happy has that happy ending. When the novel opens, she’s attended the funeral of one of the cousins. Now they are both dead and Happy has lived to see her 2 of her 3 worst enemies placed 6 feet under. Aunt Missy, however, is still alive, as garrulous as ever, and a meeting at the graveside comes dangerously close to violence.

After the ugly, vicious scene with her aunt at the funeral, Happy drives around for a few hours to cool off. Her journey takes her to the small college town of Equinox, population 410,  sleepy, pretty and quaint in its genteel decay and with a dark bizarre history. To Happy, it’s a “forlorn town, a dilapidated town: barely a town at all, just a few blocks clustered around a handful of cracked and dirty streets.” And it’s here as Happy looks around the town and its disinterested service population, that an idea takes root in her “toxic heart.” Equinox will become her next triumph, her “Jerusalem.”

She learned long ago that there was no point in looking for the thing you wanted; only the weak wanted things that could be found. The greatest desires could only be fulfilled by creating their object: a toy, a man, a state of mind.

She begins by bossing around the local real estate agent and handing the astonished woman a check for a neglected mansion with a beautiful lake view. Then slowly and strategically, Happy approaches various business owners in Equinox.  She begins by buying key operations–the inn, the beauty salon, the dusty corner market–initially offering overly generous sums of money, but then she starts to play dirty. Soon the town becomes divided over Happy’s plan to renovate Equinox making it some sort of glitzy tourist destination which will include a Happy Girl Museum. Most people who lived there were perfectly happy with the town the way it was, but a few people are thrilled to grab the money Happy offers for their anemic businesses.

And people in the  bar had started taking sides. By and large the locals liked the idea–rumor had it Ken Pell had gotten more than a hundred grand for the market, which was probably three times what it was worth, and there were plenty of Equinoxians who would stab their own sisters for that kind of money. College people, on the other hand–professors–said they’d never sell. They liked Equinox because it was quaint and cheap and on the lake. They liked authenticity, which evidently meant hicks and greasers, and they disliked the rich, a category they apparently excused themselves from.

Locals, though: they liked the idea of some bigwig moving into town. They liked somebody spreading money around. They thought it would help.

Even the people who dislike and distrust Happy have no idea of the sort of person they are dealing with. Underneath the public persona of sweetness and a great understanding of children, the real Happy is a hard, driven and canny millionairess who will do whatever it takes to ‘own’ Equinox. That includes lying, cheating, and breaking the law–it’s all on the table over the battle for Equinox. Happy feels renewed by her new plan, and that makes her a very dangerous adversary. Anyone who has the guts or the lack of imagination to stand in Happy’s way discovers the hard way that this woman plays dirty. Happy’s plan of attack when it comes to her play to take over Equinox College–a small private institution for women is simply hilarious.

Here’s Happy in a long quote that gives a sense of the author’s style, Happy’s character and merciless MO as she’s about to take over the general store:

From inside, a rustling, a scraping, a heavy tread. The door swung open. As soon as Happy saw the owner, she knew the battle was won. A shame, really, she’d hoped for a fight. It hardly seemed worth going through the motions now. The man who stood before her was little taller than she was, and half again as heavy; he had the blockish body that results from a five-coke-a-day habit and a lifetime of indolence. His coarse gray hair drooped over a pitted forehead, and the eyes were brown and dull as bark. They regarded her from behind thick curtains of tired flesh, and thick black eyebrows–dyed? she wondered, and is so, why?–dove into the furrows between them, in hostile curiosity. Happy said. “Mister …?”

“Pell.”

“Mr. Pell, so pleased to meet you. I’m Happy Masters.”

The steel door snicked shut behind her, and a switch was flipped in her head. She was different now: relentless, glib, incontrovertible. Homo hardsellius.

“Mr. Pell, let me get straight to the point. I want to buy your store. Today.”

“Not for sale,” he said, but a hint of life crept into those hooded eyes.

“You could be on your way home, right now, with a check in your hand. You could, in fact, be on your way out of town. Winter will be here soon, Mr. Pell. You could be on Maui by the end of the week.”

“Where?” he muttered.

“Hawaii, sir. or wherever you like” Finland, maybe, or Canada. Gotta hurry this up–it was like doing business in a doghouse.

“Mr. Pell, I would like you to retire today. I would like these to be the last moments you spend in this store. I would like to remove the burden of this property from your hands, right now. What would it take to make this happen?”

While Happyland has a delightful, wonderful plot, it’s also full of some great characters, including laconic, easy-going Bud and his tenacious wife, Jennifer who own the rundown gas station/ice cream kiosk. Jennifer makes a decent adversary for Happy as she’s every bit as mean and merciless but, unfortunately, lacks deep pockets. There’s also David who owns the local bar who would like to have principles if he could afford them, and  “middle-aged and languishing,” Reeve Tennyson, the college president who landed in this third-rate school after an embarrassing scandal that he walked into through his own ineptness. Aware that Equinox college really wanted to employ a woman, he’s a bit ashamed of working at Equinox College with its all female enrollment and the large percentage of lesbian students. He mostly hides out in his office, waits for his life to pass and thinks he’s hit rock bottom. It’s probably a good thing that he has no idea of the fate Happy Masters has in store for him.

Poor fella. He was doomed to lose. She could have told him this back in the day. The wandering eye, the nervous hands–it was a wonder he managed to get as far as he did before he fell. And the saddest part of all was that he thought he had landed. he thought this was the bottom.

Well, far be it from her to disabuse him of that notion. There was nothing quite so useful as someone who think she has nothing to lose. Indeed, there were, as life had demonstrated to Happy time and time again, treasures at the dump.

 Happyland  with its dark, satiric humour is very different from the other two Lennon novels I’ve read Castle and Familiar. But even though Happyland is meant to be taken as a very funny story, there’s no shortage of moral questions raised in this quintessential American novel in which money and power trumps all other considerations. Does anyone as filthy rich as Happy Masters have the moral right to convert and co-opt an entire town to their own purpose? And then there’s the response of the townspeople–some business owners would really like to sell to Happy but they’re affronted by her attitude that everything and everyone is for sale, so they don’t immediately sell. This results in a war between locals and Happy, who’s a) determined to get her way and b) ready to bury her enemies in financial disaster. Happyland looks at the reaction of the average Citizen when he’s faced with being either figuratively bulldozed into oblivion by a multi-million dollar corporation or starved off the face of the earth by someone with near-endless financial resources.  Taking a moral stand or arguing principles is a very expensive position to maintain as several townspeople find out the hard way. Then there’s Happy–a woman who possesses many admirable character traits but they’ve been trumped by her own moral corrosion and steady diet of endless power and money. Finally on the meta-level, there’s author J. Robert Lennon  who refused to compromise his principles when it came to altering some of the story basics, and he had to wait ten years for this book to appear in novel form…. I thoroughly enjoyed  Happyland  for its complete change of pace, its even, funny narrative and its underlying moral questions. This book (and its author) comes highly recommended.

review copy

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Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond by Thackeray

“Directly people expect to make a large interest, their judgment seems to desert them.”

With all the recent financial doings afoot, I found myself lingering on memories of reading Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond–a lesser-known novella from W.M. Thackeray (1811-1863). While it lacks the scope and the intense character study of Thackeray’s great social novel Vanity Fair, nonetheless this slim volume is a delightful, witty read, still highly relevant, and it’s well worth catching. It’s impossible to read this little 19th century gem without recognising its wisdom–it is, after all, still relevant here in the 21st century.

Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty  Diamond is a morality tale. It was published in 1841–early in Thackeray’s literary career, and it first appeared in magazine installments. The novella has subsequently been dwarfed by Thackeray’s more famous and popular books (Barry Lyndon, Vanity Fair, The History of Henry Esmond, Pendennis). Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty  Diamond  was written during a rather unhappy time in the author’s short life, and it contains some autobiographical elements. Thackeray’s wife Isabella was going mad (and would be locked up for decades), and his second daughter died shortly after her birth. The latter incident finds its way into the story as does Thackeray’s unfortunate, yet memorable, brush with debtor’s prison,

Samuel–the story’s hero–is a clerk at the Independent West Diddlesex Fire and Insurance Company in London, and he’s the story’s narrator. If you think the name ‘Samuel Titmarsh’ hints at naiveté and mild-mannered behaviour, then you’d be right. It’s easy to pick up the clue that there’s something really fishy afoot with the Diddlesex Company, and we get it before Titmarsh does, although the story is narrated as a retrospective, and at several points in the tale we are told events that take place in Titmarsh’s present along with a rundown of what lies ahead for a few of the characters. In this manner, Titmarsh presents the story through the lens of lessons learned and humbly retold for the edification of the reader.

Samuel Titmarsh is just one of twenty-four young men whose families have paid for their sons’ position at the Diddlesex Insurance Company. Samuel’s mother, the Widow Titmarsh, has invested her entire nest egg of four hundred pounds in the company. This indicates a huge amount of trust in the company and also her desperation.  She also has 9 daughters to support, so great hopes rest on Samuel’s successful future. The Widow Titmarsh’s investment basically ‘buys’ Samuel a lowly clerk’s position within the Diddlesex Company.

The company boasts five million in capital, but the head of the company, the indefatigable Mr. Brough argues:

We have five millions in capital on our books, as you see–five bona-fide millions of bona-fide sovereigns paid up, sir,–there is no dishonesty there. But why should we not have twenty millions–a hundred millions? Why should not this be the greatest commercial association in the world!

Oh dear. With that speech, I saw shades of Aristide Saccard from Zola’s Money. Brough appears to be cut from the same cloth as Saccard, and we all know where Saccard’s megalomania led him (and those who believed in him).  Brough has many other business ties. He appears to be a gregarious soul, but his affable exterior disguises the rather peculiar business practices of a scoundrel. He evens sinks low enough to coerce his servants to invest a portion of their pathetically low wages in the company, and he masks his greed with concern for the welfare of others.

Samuel Titmarsh’s troubles all begin when he returns from the country with “the great Hoggarty Diamond” –it’s a present from his obnoxious Aunt Hoggarty. Titmarsh has the diamond reset into a pin and he begins sporting it to work. When Brough learns that Titmarsh has affluent relatives and is Aunt Hoggarty’s  ‘heir apparent’, he promotes Titmarsh to dizzying heights within the company, and pressures him to get his aunt to invest all her money. The diamond appears to bring its new owner luck, and it certainly opens doors that were once closed to Titmarsh. With the introduction of the diamond pin, a social marker of affluence,  the novel sashays into a satire of British society and its intricate hierarchy of class and snobbery:

Well the pin certainly worked wonders: for not content merely with making me a present of a ride in a countess’s carriage, a haunch of venison and two baskets of fruit, …, my diamond had other honours in store for me, and procured me the honour of an invitation to the house of our director, Mr Brough.

Poor innocent Titmarsh doesn’t realise that Brough now considers Titmarsh, mistakenly identified as a cousin to a countess, a prospect to be squeezed for his money and his connections. The scenes at Brough’s home are really very funny as we see Brough’s horrible daughter Miss Belinda prancing around her competing beau–Captain Fizgig and the Byron-inspired Bill Tidd, more foolish young men to be squeezed for their fortunes. Here’s Belinda snobbily applying her limited grasp of French to Titmarsh:

At the name of the Countess (I have a dozen times rectified the error about our relationship), Miss Belinda made a low courtesy, and stared at me very hard, and said she would try to make the Rookery pleasant to any friend of papa’s. ‘We have not much monde today,’ continued Miss Brough, ‘and are only in petit comité; but I hope before you leave us you will see some société that will make your séjour agreeable.’

I saw at once that she was a fashionable girl, from her using the French language in this way.

And here’s Captain Fizgig:

‘Yes, Brough, your fair daughter pincé‘d the harp, and touché‘d the piano, and égratigné‘d the guitar, and écorché‘d a song or two; and we had the pleasure of a promenade à l’eau, –a walk upon the water.’

‘Law, captain!’ cries Mrs. Brough, ‘walk on the water?’

‘Hush, mamma, you don’t understand French!’ says Miss Belinda, with a sneer.

‘It’s a sad disadvantage, madam,’ says Fizgig gravely;’and I recommend you and Brough here, who are coming out in the great world, to have some lessons; or at least get up a couple of dozen phrases, and introduce them into your conversation here and there. I suppose, sir, you speak it commonly at the office, or what you call it?’ And Mr. Fizgig put his glass into his eye and looked at me.

The Diddlesex Company begins offering unheard of premiums to investors, and the annual yield soars beyond its previous 4%. Soon the naive Titmarsh, promoted to the dizzying heights of head clerk,  finds himself embroiled in schemes and financial skullduggery that are not of his making. His situation is further complicated by Aunt Hoggarty who insists on moving to London.

This cautionary tale of greed and ambition is full of witty portraits–dreadful Aunt Hoggarty (her horribly misspelled letters appear throughout the text), the shady Reverend Grimes Wapshot, the grasping Mr. Brough, and his impossibly snobby daughter, Belinda. These characters move in a social circle whose members long to rub elbows with the upper echelons of British society, so the idea that Titmarsh may have noble connections makes him desirable to those who want an introduction to the society they cannot attain. As these unsavoury characters take advantage of Titmarsh in various ways, our hero learns some painful but valuable lessons in this extraordinary Ponzi scheme, but the nastiness is balanced with the sweetness and loyalty of Titmarsh’s true and loyal friends. Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond really serves as a companion to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, so if you’ve read one you might like the other.

Finally a bit of advice from our old friend Titmarsh:

“great profits imply great risks; [and that] shrewd capitalists of this country would not be content with four percent for their money, if they could securely get more.”

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Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro

“Are we shutting ourselves in, or are we shutting out other people so they can’t come in?” 

I just finished the very impressive novel, Thursday Night Widows written by Argentinean novelist, Claudia Pineiro. The story is set in Cascade Heights, an exclusive gated country estate thirty miles from Buenos Aires. The novel begins in September 2001 with the discovery of three dead men at the bottom of a pool, and then the novel backtracks over the past decade. Ultimately,  Thursday Night Widows is a scathing psychological analysis of a class and a country seen through the narrow vision of one group of families who enjoy bloated, materialistic lives while ignoring the collapse of their society.

Told partly through the eyes of real-estate agent Virginia Guevara, the novel explores life in Cascade Heights–a walled in estate which encompasses 500 acres and 300 homes, and the worth of those homes increases with proximity to the perfectly manicured golf course. Naturally only Argentina’s ‘best’ families live there with most of the wives becoming avid consumers at home while their husbands travel by luxury car to work in the city. Marooned in “The Cascades”  the families are divorced from society and develop relationships with each other based on status and strict hierarchy. The high perimeter wall and dozens of guards keep out undesirables, crime and poverty, while creating a false world inside the estate. Lawns must ‘match,’ no fences or barriers are permitted, certain colours are ‘allowed,’ but these are all only external signalments of conformity. As the couples mingle and socialize, certain behaviour (excessive drinking, spousal abuse, subtle and not-so-subtle rascism) is largely ignored. Everyone adheres to the unspoken agreement of conformity and pack behaviour with El Tano Scagli, one of the estate’s most affluent men, and owner of one of the largest homes, dominating the other subordinate males.

Virginia Guevara, one of the rare Cascade wives to be employed, works to keep the family afloat, and notes the up-and-coming newcomers, along with the decline in fortunes of those forced to leave this fabricated, upscale Eden. The novel covers the affluence of the 90s and the rapid decline of Argentina’s economy through the ripple-out consequences felt in Cascade Heights. To the wives who live there, the outside world doesn’t exist, and while the perimeter wall and the guards manage to keep the poor and undesirables out of sight, nonetheless the social problems of Argentina still manage to creep through. In this fashion, the history of Cascade Heights becomes a reflection of Argentina’s problems, but with Argentina’s economy becoming a ‘reality’ only as it impacts the Cascades. At one point, Virginia mentions the “Antieri episode”–the suicide of a military man. Virginie and her husband, pick up the Antieri house “for next to nothing” when they move to The Cascades in the late 80s. Suicides, divorces, and bankruptcies all take their toll as the financial systems of Argentina wax and wane. Here’s Virginia talking about Argentina’s boom years:

“It was about two years later that I sold a plot of land to the Scaglias. This was a few days after the Minister for Foreign Affairs became the Finance Minister he had always been destined to be and persuaded Congress to pass the Convertibility Law. One peso would be worth one dollar: the famous ‘one for one’ that restored Argentines’ confidence and fuelled an exodus to places like Cascade Heights.”

Covering the late 80s until Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse, Thursday Night Widows is a stunning analysis of a social class. The smug upper classes flock to The Cascades, creating a sleek, affluent Utopia in which the poor are only allowed in wearing uniforms; “as a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear, it’s a domestic servant or gardener.”  Every ugly reality is either hidden, ignored or ejected from this well-heeled paradise. Couples move in and then sell out–usually due to some horrible misfortune, and the novel records it all from the cluelessness of most of the wives, to the rebelliousness of some of the children:

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned forever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, covered in soap, looking up at the showerhead, from which not a single drop of water falls anymore.”

The scenes which include interactions between the Cascade wives and their servants resonant with bitter cynicism. In one section of the novel, some of the bored wives decide to form a charity and call themselves “The Ladies of the Heights.”  In one great scene the tanned, spoiled wives organize a jumble sale for charity, selling their cast off clothing and underwear. The jumble sale is  “exclusively for the maids”  and the maids are then expected to come and buy the discarded clothing they’d normally be given as handouts. You’d think the wives’ hypocrisy would stick in their throats but it doesn’t, and the wives consider they are better people for throwing crumbs to their maids and then making them pay for the privilege. But even though the wives are mostly clueless about their selfish, crass behaviour, the author still maintains sympathy for some of her characters–the wives are kept like exotic pets and then discarded as they age or deteriorate. Some of the Cascade wives have husbands who refuse to work, and so these women juggle the affluent lifestyle with debts and a lot of pretense.

I expected a crime novel, but Thursday Night Widows is much more than this–primarily a compelling tale, and at no point did the tale seem forced to fit an agenda or a point of view. Upscale, exclusive (and excluding) housing estates such as The Cascades don’t just exist in Argentina, and wherever they crop up, they tend to condition residents into conformity and homogenous pack behaviour. You couldn’t pay me to live in one of these sorts of communities, but I’ve seen them, and I’ve seen the sort of people who live in them. People of similar material circumstances prefer living with others who enjoy the same standard of living. It may be natural, but as the novel shows, add a wall, guards, and a few rules, and the result isn’t  healthy.

Thursday Nights Widows  by Claudia Pineiro is translated by Miranda France. With any luck director Marcelo Pineyro’s film version, Las Viudas de los Jueves, should make DVD release soon.

For those interested in the subject of gated communities, I recommend a short documentary film call The Forbidden City by filmmaker Matt Ehling. It can be ordered directly from the website: www.prolefeedstudios.com

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