A Review of Jonathan Dee’s “The Locals”
Bad Things Happen (To Bad People)
Do you remember the days after 9/11? As the years grow on from that terrible day in history, my memories become foggier and foggier. I was working as a freelance journalist at the time, but missed the call for freelancers to come into the local newspaper I was writing for to cover the historic news. I do remember police being on buses that day and watching the images that night at my what would become my girlfriend of five year’s place. (I didn’t have TV at the time. Still don’t.) I remember being a bit more scared about the anthrax attacks, which remain unsolved to this day and seemed more creepy, but perhaps that’s just memory playing its tricks.
Jonathan Dee’s latest novel The Locals covers life in a small New England town from 9/11 onward to about 2009. It does a stellar job of capturing the mood of the nation in the oughts, but comes with one glaring defect or two that I’ll get to later. The story centers mostly around a building renovator and his family. The renovator happens to be in New York at the time of the attacks (prompting a prayer vigil in his small town for his safe return) who is there to launch a class-action lawsuit against a man who defrauded him out of his family’s savings. Not long after, a wealthy New Yorker moves into the small Massachusetts town, and gradually begins to assert his political control — in a move that seems warily prescient of the rise of Donald Trump.
There are other characters that populate the town: the renovator, whose name is Mark, has a brother named Gerry who is trouble with a capital T. Both men get caught up in a property speculating business that grows with the economy (until the inevitable collapse in 2008, which shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler if you know your recent history). Mark’s sister, Candice, has been demoted from her vice-principal job at a local private school, which her niece Haley attends. Mark’s wife takes on a job at a local tourist attraction, which plays a pivotal role by novel’s end. All of these stories intertwine around the New Yorker’s power grab.
The novel plays with structure, though this move feels as though it is more style over substance. Recalling the ’90s independent movie Slacker, one section of the novel shifts from character to character as one takes his or her leave over the other and follows them instead. (And, repeat.) The first nine percent of the book (which I read on my Kindle as a galley) is told from the perspective of another New Yorker involved in the class-action suit, only never to be heard from once more. The Locals keeps you on your toes. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Which brings us to the key deficiency of The Locals. There are a ton of characters in this novel — some who come and go, never to be mentioned again — and not only is it hard to keep track without keeping notes, but all of them are, excuse my language, assholes. Every single one of them. They have far more unredeeming qualities than they have good ones. So, naturally, when bad things start to happen to them, we don’t care. Not at all. While the point of fiction is to document the human condition, and I realize that small towns are full of jerks (having been raised in one myself), not everyone is a bad apple through and through. These people, however, are self-absorbed to a point where it is almost parody. Are Americans, especially small-town Americans, really like this? I mean, they probably are to some extent, but it’s hard to read about it in a novel — which is a source of escapism for many readers. Do you really need a book to tell you that not all people are 100 percent good?
The other problem I had is that Dee doesn’t describe his characters at all, so you base the pictures in your mind of them on the dialogue fully and completely. This is a problem. Mark, as a character, is so nebbish that I imagined him as a bit of a Larry David-esque character. Except he appears to be in his 30s at the novel’s outset. Except that he is a contractor and home renovator, so then I was imagining him as a Bob Villa type. Except that he lives in Massachusetts. You get the drift. While I don’t always remember character descriptions, with so many characters in this sprawling novel, you really need something to remember everyone by. Dee provides only the faintest of sketches, if any at all. Kind of a problem from a writer who was previously nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Yet, I found myself missing the small town when I closed the cover on my Kindle for the final time. I suppose there’s enough intrigue in this book to make it a bit of a literary thriller. In the end, though, The Locals is a bit of a mixed-bag. On one hand, it offers a scathing critique of American democracy, which is particularly timely in the age of Trump. In fact, despite the novel’s time setting, it could very well be about how Trump came to power and the circumstances that would let people vote in someone like him. On the other hand, it’s a real drag to read about you-know-whats. None of these characters are particularly likeable, and, indeed, every single one of them comes across as selfish and vain. Again, this may be part of the reason for The Locals’ existence, if not the whole point. Still, it’s rather hard to swallow over the course of a long, sprawling novel.
So take that for what it’s worth. You either like The Locals for being so relevant, or you’ll hate it for being pitiless. I fell somewhat in-between on the spectrum. I saw value in the book, but I did find it hard to read and it took a long time to really get going. I didn’t like any of the characters, who were too shrill to my tastes. Still, if you want to read about the here and now, and how we got there, The Locals is the novel, for the time being, that does its best to explain today’s volatile American society at its worst.
Jonathan Dee’s The Locals will be published by Random House on August 8, 2017.
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