Tag Archives: suburbia

The Evil Days: Bruno Fischer (1973)

In Bruno Fischer’s crime novel, The Evil Days, a married couple are on the Straight and Narrow until a bag of jewels introduces greed, sex and sin into suburbia. I love the theme of respectable citizens so easily derailed as it argues that honesty and decency exist simply due to lack of alternatives. One whiff of opportunity and morality, ethics, whatever are tossed to the curb.

Caleb Dawson, associate editor for a New York publisher, has the very typical life of a married suburbanite. Years earlier, Caleb and his sexy, avaricious, discontented wife Sally moved to the suburbs where they now live in a dull little tract home with their two dull little children. The move was a decision based on affordability, and no doubt that ever-elusive ‘quality of life’ issue was wrapped up in there somewhere too:

We lived in one of fourteen ranch-style houses lined up on both sides of the street. The houses were not quite identical. Some had garages on the right and some on the left; some had fixed black shutters on off-white shingles and some had white shutters on gray shingles. All had three bedrooms, and a dinette that merged into the living room, and an up-to-date kitchen wide enough for two skinny people, and a cement-block playroom in the basement. In the six years since we had bought it for more than we could afford, taxes had doubled, and in another twenty-four years (when I would be sixty-two), the mortgage would be paid off.

Every morning Caleb takes the 7:52 commuter train. And every evening Sally drives their sole vehicle, a station wagon, back to the station to meet Caleb from the 5:27 pm train. Life is a treadmill, and that makes Caleb either the hamster on the relentless wheel or a prisoner: you choose.

One day is exactly like another until the evening Sally starts acting weird, nervous and jumpy. At first she won’t tell Caleb what’s going on, but soon she confesses that she found a bag of jewelry outside of the bank. While Caleb’s first impulse is turn in the jewelry to the police, Sally persuades Caleb to delay–arguing that they should at least profit from a reward. Caleb, as village trustee, is in a unique position to monitor a theft/loss report, but things become far more complicated when he discovers that the jewelry belongs to his boss, Mr. Martaine’s wife, Norma.

Of course there are many questions rooted into the basic plot. How did Mrs. Martaine manage to lose her jewelry? How on earth are the Dawsons going to claim a reward without revealing that they have held on to the gems? Things are complicated enough but all hell breaks loose with the murder of a local playboy/poet. Suddenly, this boring little corner of suburbia is a hotbed of riotous sex, peeping toms, and voracious housewives.

The novel flings around some interesting numbers that reflect the cost of living and wages during the ugliness of the 70s. Fischer manages to slide in some criticism about the publishing industry through Caleb who fumes over his relatively low standard of living in relation of others in the work force. I didn’t like any of the characters and didn’t find them particularly interesting. The fun here is the way in which Fischer deftly shifts gears from boredom, routine and dissatisfied domestication to sex, greed and murder in the suburbs. The possibility of newfound wealth unleashes both Caleb and Sally, and there’s the underlying idea that the Dawsons each buried some of the more unpleasant aspects of their respective natures–at least from each other for years. With the jewelry adding temptation, wage slave Caleb finds that his resentments float to the surface and that Sally has hidden depths–none of them are good:

Then she began to move and turn and undulate like a belly dancer, watching herself all the time in the mirror. There was something quite unfamiliar about that familiar body, a hothouse lushness that seemed to have changed it in subtle ways–something unfamiliar about the sensuous smile directed at her naked image. And she was different. She had never before had a quarter of a million dollars of jewels on her flesh, and the erotic effect they had on her in the mirror reached out to me at the window.

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What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Synder

Apart from gangster lore, I know very little about Chicago, but I wasn’t far into Rachel Louise Synder’s debut novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing, when I realized that the action is set in a real community. Oak Park has its very own Wikipedia page, and according to the book’s intro (which I didn’t read immediately in case it contained spoilers–it didn’t), “Oak Park is  a suburb in flux. To the west, theaters and shops frame posh homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To the east lies a neighborhood trying desperately to recover from urban decline. Although the community’s Diversity Assurance program has curbed the destructive racial housing practices that migrated from Chicago’s notorious west side over the past decades, cultural and racial integration has been tenuous at best.” I’m including that entire quote because I can’t do better. The name “Austin Boulevard” also crops up in the novel, and I discovered that this road is the border between the crime-ridden community of Austin (termed Chicago’s deadliest neighbourhood) and the community of Oak Park. So who wants to live in Oak Park, the neighbourhood which boasts the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright designed residences? Come on raise your hands….

what we've lost is nothingWhat We’ve Lost is Nothing focuses on a neighbourhood mass burglary that takes place one afternoon in Oak Park’s fictional Ilios Lane, a cul-de-sac of eight houses–all of which are burglarized. The incident challenges the lives and beliefs of the residents as shock waves from the burglary wash through the neighbourhood and issues of race and class float to the surface.

The premise of the novel sounded … well… interesting.  Burglaries are traumatic events for anyone, and that trauma goes far beyond the loss of stuff that can be replaced. Sometimes items that are worth next to nothing, but hold immense sentimental value, are taken, and then there’s the sense of violation that remains long after the event. For the residents of Ilios Lane, however, the burglary has even deeper ramifications as the residents begin to question whether or not they can live a safe middle-class existence right next to the crime-ridden community of Austin, located on the borders of Oak Park.  This is especially true for Susan McPherson who’s an agent at a housing office and who believes wholeheartedly in “diversity assurance.” She spends her days showing apartments to young couples, proud of her “progressivism,” assuring them that the neighbourhoods are safe.  She believes in her sales pitch until the burglary tells her otherwise. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, begins to feel that he has to ‘do something,’ and his inner fascist awakes.

The novel begins the day after the burglaries and then follows various characters for the 24-hour fallout after the event. Mary McPherson, a cheerleader, was cutting school with Sofia, a Cambodian friend, and the two girls were high on Ecstasy, under the dining room table during the course of the burglary. Another couple, the Kowalskis, were on holiday, others were at work, and one man, Arthur Gardenia, the novel’s most sympathetic character, who suffers from Hemeralopia, was at his usual daytime post– upstairs in the dark. He heard noises downstairs but was too afraid to investigate. The items stolen from his house are without value to the thieves, but the loss crushes Arthur and tests the limits of his already-fragile existence.

Who goes into a pawnshop in search of used notebooks? What was the street value for such a personal thing? Arthur fought waves of nausea and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t even search for them himself, his vision was too poor. They were simply gone. He sat on his bed, fighting a growing sense of helplessness, waiting, it might seem, until the sanctity of his haven was restored, the one place he felt he could emerge from his own helplessness. This, too, he had to admit, was what had been invaded. Not his home, but his sense of security.

Meanwhile Mary finds that Caz, the school lothario, is attracted by her new-found notoriety and increased “social capital.” Understanding that the burglary “catapulted her into Caz’s periphery,” she’s desperate to hang on to that attention.

While the novel, with its emphasis on class and race has a very interesting premise, I wish the plot had spent more time on some of the other residents; additional development with some of the more neglected characters would have produced a more even story. We see that for some residents of Oak Park, life there is an arrival, a step up into the middle-class, but for others, it’s a daily fight to keep their heads above water. While the burglary realistically brought some issues between the neighbours to the surface, the whole diversity issue was hammered too heavily. It was there front and central immediately through geography and Mrs McPherson’s employment, and the additional elements (particularly her run) moved the story from incident to cliché. The portrayal of the Cambodian family was also weak.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a little too much emphasis on Mary and Caz, and aren’t cheerleaders, by their very role, popular? At least that was my impression, but here Mary is painted as a bit of a wall flower who’s desperate for Caz’s attention. The final scene between Caz and Mary was far too extended and resulted in an unfortunate and not entirely believable conclusion.  On the positive side, I liked the way the novel showed that the residents all led fairly fragile existences for one reason or another, and that these lives were shattered by the burglaries. If you’re on the bottom levels of society, suburbia may seem enviable, an impossible dream, but middle-class life brings its own nightmares, and the author explored that aspect of the story well. Also of note are the fast-forward moments which give us glimpses into the futures of some of the characters, and the insertion of the listserv comments where various paranoias and beliefs emerge, and everyone unleashes an opinion they might not express face-to-face.

Review copy

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The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

Connecting the dots….George Eliot, Philip Hensher and the multiplot novel.

I don’t know what it is about 2010 and 700 page novels, but so far this year, I’ve managed to read two: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan–a fictional 40 year view of the music biz from the manager of a rock band, and now The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. Both are reviewed over at MostlyFiction but I commented on Evening’s Empire here, so I decided to blog a bit about The Northern Clemency while I am at it.

I noted The Northern Clemency from Philip Hensher was shortlisted for the Booker prize–after all that was blazoned across the cover, but since I am generally oblivious to these things, I thought the book was up for this year–2010.

I started the book and thought to myself that if I liked it, I would probably be placing a curse on the chances of it winning as I typically seem to have better luck with the books that don’t win. It’s not that I read all the nominees and then am upset when my pony doesn’t win. Instead it’s a case of me looking at old lists and realising that I preferred the losers over the winners–hence my blog category: Booker Prize Losers.

I was only a few pages into the book when I realised that I was really enjoying it. This was, I thought, a nail in the coffin as far as the prize went for the author, Philip Hensher, so it was with a sense of relief that I discovered (after looking at the Booker prize archive) that the book already lost a few years back–2008, in fact. 

This just goes to show–again, as if I needed the reinforcement–that the books I like lose.

I liked it so much, I tracked down the author and asked for an interview. The Northern Clemency really was a terrific read–the closest thing I’ve read to a modern version of theVictorian multiplot novel in a while.  So what’s it about? In a nutshell, it’s the story of two families in Sheffield from the years 1974-1994.

I’m not going to re-review the book, but I do want to address some of the criticisms I came across. Some people thought it was rather like a soap opera, and (horror of horrors) Coronation Street was even mentioned at one point. I didn’t think the book was like a soap opera at all. If I went back over the last twenty years of my life, well, I’ve lost count of the deaths, the diseases, divorces, scandals and suicides that have taken their toll. But enough of the hankies and the sympathy cards. Bottom line, I don’t think that The Northern Clemency is over-the-top when it came to the scenarios it presented. 

Another criticism of the book is that it largely ignores the political events taking place in the country. I saw the politics in the book as background noise, and whether we like it or not, that’s how it is for most people. Take the current debacle in Iraq for example. It’s been going on now for 7 years, and yet most Americans are largely untouched by what has become a sideshow–a war that doesn’t even make the headlines. Rubbishy stories detailing the latest salacious sex scandal of sports celebs and hollywood stars take a front seat to ho-hum stuff like wars.

Makes me think of one of my favourite Auden poems: Musee des Beaux Arts…but I digress.

Back to The Northern Clemency and why I think it is a throwback to the Victorian multiplot novel. 

George Eliot, by gum,  knew how to write a Victorian multiplot that showed the fabric of British society through the interconnected lives of her characters, and we see this sort of thing in The Northern Clemency, a novel in which lives and lifestyles intersect.  Here are two quotes from one of my TOP TEN novels of all time,  Middlemarch, and both of these quotes get at the interconnectedness of roles in society.

“But anyone watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen state with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour.” 

And then:

“I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

While Hensher’s characters  remain firmly products of their class, nonetheless, the plot shows this interconnectedness in the social fabric Thatcher’s Britain. For example, Malcolm Glover works for a building society which later sells council houses, and this fuels Malcolm’s repetitive arguments with his emotionally stunted Marxist son.  Bernie Sellers works for the power company that helps break the Miners’ Strike. Years later, the power company is privatized and Bernie is forced to retire and handed a “gold plated vent, or valve, or tap, or something” for his trouble. Also we see middle class housewife Katherine Glover venturing out to seek employment. She happens to find herself unexpectedly wound up in the fate of a large-scale drug dealer, and while she is too naive to understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the finances of the business she works for, nonetheless, the reader sees the connection between middle-class suburbia and the excesses of a drug dealer who cannot spend his money fast enough. Another example can be found almost at the end of the novel. One of my favourite scenes involves those roused from a coma or a suffering from a brain problem who are given a  key question: “who is the Prime Minister of Britain?”  The answer should be John Major: but if patients reply ‘Margaret Thatcher’ this is not seen as incorrect:

“We found that however badly damaged a patient’s mind was –even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s–they always seemed to know it was Mrs. Thatcher. And until quite recently you couldn’t base much on them not remembering immediately that it was John Major. People with nothing wrong with them went on saying Mrs. Thatcher before remembering and correcting themselves, for a year, eighteen months.”

 And we readers can take that any way we want, I suppose. For me, the passage lends itself to the idea that Thatcher’s rule PM years are more than just a memory that remains behind–these years left permanent changes or damage depending on how you look at it–a bit like a stain. Or one of those ring-around-the-bath thingies.

The Northern Clemency may not be overtly political but some of the most poignant parts of the novel describe the desperation and pride of the Miners’ wives,and at the same time the author makes it perfectly clear that British society remains divided along class lines. People move, accents shift and alter, but unfortunately we remain divided and separate from those whose lots in life we cannot understand. One of the main characters, Daniel, although a native of Sheffield remains a ‘foreigner’ to the miners’ section of town, and when he visits the mining town of Tinstone, it’s as if he’s stepped onto another planet. Hensher makes the point, and I think he makes the point well, that we may not think our lives are connected but they are. Connect the dots and what do you see….Miners…British Rail…and a few dots later…?

If anyone out there is interested in the events that took place at Orgreave (there’s a section of The Northern Clemency that takes place at Orgreave), I reviewed Dave Douglass’s Come Wet This Truncheon elsewhere on this blog.

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