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The Locals

Review

The Locals

Someday novels will be written purporting to explain the American psyche in the age of Donald Trump. Though it was finished well before the election of 2016, consider Jonathan Dee's impressive THE LOCALS an early entry in that genre. An acute examination of life in a small New England town in roughly the decade after 9/11, it’s social realism or fictional sociology of the highest order.

Only a few weeks after the planes hit the World Trade Center, the Berkshires town of Howland, Massachusetts, is treated to the arrival of Philip Hadi, a hedge fund manager who decides to make the transition from summer visitor to permanent resident after hinting darkly of more attacks on New York City to come. To upgrade the security in his home, Hadi hires Mark Firth, a respected, if only intermittently successful, contractor. Howland's citizens consider Mark a near victim of the terrorist attack, merely by his being in midtown Manhattan on that day. But his presence is anything but heroic; he's there to meet with a lawyer who's representing him in a class action against a Bernie Madoff-like swindler to whom he unwisely entrusted his modest investment portfolio.

When the sudden death of the town’s First Selectman creates a leadership vacancy, Hadi quickly volunteers to step into the breach. Though he seems curiously disengaged from the conduct of governing once he's elected, he's soon subsidizing governmental functions out of his own pocket and even quietly advancing money to local businesses to keep them afloat, all while cutting taxes. What political philosophy he articulates is simple and blunt: “A government’s nature…is to eventually become both means and end, self-sustaining, self-justifying. There is a lot of it we can simply get rid of.”

"An acute examination of life in a small New England town in roughly the decade after 9/11, it’s social realism or fictional sociology of the highest order."

Like those of other once-thriving towns along the Housatonic River, Howland's small government is struggling to meet the escalating demands of its citizens. That task is complicated by a land trust that protects more than a thousand acres from development and the historic register status of a dubious landmark, the Caldwell House, that precipitously removes it from the tax rolls.

Mark Firth, who's "looking for some evidence, some manifestation, of what set him apart from a guy like Hadi: a guy who had everything and from whom nothing could be taken away,” undergoes his own transformation in the wake of the financier'sarrival. Frustrated by the inevitable ups and downs of his contracting business, and encouraged by Hadi, he decides to shift his efforts to purchasing homes out of foreclosure and then flipping them. That metamorphosis symbolizes the broader society's transition from creating and building things to its eager pursuit of new techniques of financial manipulation aimed at securing quick and easy riches. Dee deftly traces the arc of Mark's ride along that path from boom to inevitable bust.

The town of Howland itself possesses all the trappings of traditional small-town American life, but none of the spirit. Though the first Thursday of each month brings a town hall meeting, the residents are mere passive observers, not the flinty, fiercely independent New Englanders of lore. Even after Hadi installs a pair of surveillance cameras on Main Street, the efforts of Mark's brother Gerry, a failed real estate salesman and blogger whose rants have a certain Tea Party-like flavor, can't rouse the citizenry to action.

“Frankly democracy doesn’t really work anymore." Hadi tells Howland's sole police officer "that’s something I guess you’re not supposed to say in polite company but it’s objectively true.” In Howland, it seems, the heart of self-government has suffered a fatal infarction, like the one that kills Hadi's predecessor and paves the way for his ascension.

Though Gerry argues that it is "time for self-reliance," his behavior and that of most of the novel's principal characters mocks any notion of that Emersonian virtue. The Firth siblings --- Mark, Gerry and their sister Candace --- specialize in self-inflicted wounds, battling their own deep character flaws while facing the problems of their aging parents, most notably their mother’s creeping dementia. Dee's portrayal of this struggling family is every bit as impressive as Jonathan Franzen's depiction of the Lamberts in THE CORRECTIONS.

Dee, whose novel THE PRIVILEGES was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, is a gifted stylist, and THE LOCALS clips along at a brisk and satisfying pace. He juggles multiple points of view effortlessly, and captures the passage of time from September 2001’s blend of patriotism and paranoia into the days of the housing bubble's implosion with unobtrusive ease.

This sketch in miniature of America at the dawn of a new century is anything but flattering. We haven’t lost our desire to strive for the American dream, Dee seems to say, but in abandoning ideas of communal responsibility and collective effort, we've most definitely gone astray, substituting a slick but malfunctioning GPS for an old-fashioned compass to show us the way.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 11, 2017

The Locals
by Jonathan Dee

  • Publication Date: August 8, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812993225
  • ISBN-13: 9780812993226