“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.
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