The Locals: Life in Post 9/11 America

Jonathan Dee
Random House, 400 pages

Recently a college sophomore admitted that she kept hearing the phrase “since 9/11,” but didn’t really understand what it meant. That’s no dig at her; she was two when the Twin Towers fell and the national (in)security state crystallized. But if you wanted to explain to someone her age how the world shifted overnight, Jonathan Dee’s The Locals would be a good start. It’s not a flawless novel, but it’s one of the first good looks at the George W. Bush era. It also manages to delve into social class, robber baron politics, and the erosion of the American Dream by letting internal dramas speak for themselves and resisting the temptation to moralize.

The Locals is bookended by 9/11 and the collapse of the housing bubble. It opens in New York City, where a visitor from Massachusetts, contractor Mark Frith, happens to be in town to meet with a lawyer heading a class action suit to help he and others recoup losses from an investment scam. That very day 9/11 occurred and Frith is bilked a second time by a cynical New Yorker who couldn’t care less about what happened in Lower Manhattan. This sets the stage for a novel that is about self-interest, self-conceit, and seeking shortcuts for financial, personal, and community well-being.

The novel shifts to the Berkshires town of Howland. For most people from outside the Bay State, the Berkshires are a playground for those of means who come to partake of Tanglewood, summer theater, the Kripalu yoga retreat, art museums, tea on the verandahs of old hotels, and dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow. Rich New Yorkers have long summered in places such as Egremont, Lenox, and Stockbridge. Howland is the other Berkshires, the one that makes the county the third poorest in the state. It’s a fading blue-collar town of greasy spoon diners, precarious small businesses, once elegant homes, and citizens who do what they need to get by. Mark lives there with his wife, Karen, and their daughter Haley. It’s also home to his brother Gerry, who has just lost his job as a real estate broker for sleeping with a co-worker; and sister Candace, about to walk away from her substitute-teaching job. We meet a full cast of locals and their collective problems and inequities make Howland seem like a working-class version of Peyton Place.

Hope comes to Howland in the form of billionaire hedge fund manager Phillip Hadi, who moves from post 9/11 New York City and adopts Howland as his own—literally his own. When the head of the town council dies, Hadi assumes his post and proceeds to slash taxes and to bankroll services with his own money. Is he a savior, or the Devil in a designer plaid shirt and khakis? Mark, who oversees the rehab of Hadi’s house, admires his employer and seeks his advice; Karen and Candace are more cautious, and Gerry sets up an anonymous blog to denounce the man who would be king. Most townspeople find it hard to resist low taxes and a guy willing to pick up the tab for everything.

The Locals wrestles with the question of tradition versus change. Karen works at Caldwell House, a former Gilded Age mansion turned into a house museum; and Candace lands at the town library, another relic, but one kept open with Hadi’s money. The book's characters are metaphors for 21st century tensions. Hadi is the outsider who may or may not have good ideas, Mark is the sunny optimist, Mark's occasional helper Barrett is the angry white working-class male, and Gerry the pessimist. The women wallow in the contradictions within varying middle positions. Candace is torn between her anger and her desire to help people, Karen between her admiration for elegance and the gnawing suspicion that she can only hope to visit it, and Haley with being a dutiful child and asking a teenager’s tough (and sometimes prescient) questions about why things must be as they are. Dee raises debates worth considering. Do we prefer democracy or benevolent dictatorship? Is the American Dream still attainable? Can we trust something that seems too good to be true? And there is my student’s question: How has America changed since 9/11?

Ultimately we must decide if The Locals is a cautionary tale or a description of how things work in contemporary America. I would caution readers not to get caught up in the effusive pre-release praise surrounding the novel. Dee is a good writer, but there are plodding passages in The Locals, too many incidental characters, and a sometimes-clunky arc that is slow to reveal what is essential and what's simply filler. Still, anyone who knows the Berkshires will applaud Dee’s chutzpah for revealing what lurks beneath the surface elegance.

Rob Weir   

1 comment:

Derek said...

Well whaddya know - that was reviewed in the Observer last week and the comments were pretty similar to yours.