Bonds and Insecurities

The Locals: A Novel BY Jonathan Dee. Random House. Hardcover, 400 pages. $28.

The cover of The Locals: A Novel

In the weeks after the attacks of September 11 New Yorkers tried to be nicer. Strangers made eye contact, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani walked in step with Senator Hillary Clinton. There were televised reports of hugging. It wasn’t utopia, exactly, but like the voids where the towers once stood, it was weird. “What the fuck was wrong with everybody?” as the first, nameless narrator of Jonathan Dee’s The Locals puts it. It is not a novel with a lot of patience for the idea that 9/11 transformed New Yorkers into a better, more noble people.

This places it at odds with much recent 9/11 fiction, in which the feelings of togetherness engendered by the tragedy can have the status of a mystical experience, but Dee’s narrator isn’t much of a togetherness guy: “Who gives a shit about you, really? Not that many people.” He’s also a convicted sex offender (he spied on coeds) and a kind of victim. Made rich by a settlement after being run over by a city bus—“As long as you don’t die it’s like hitting the Lotto”—he was promptly reimpoverished by an internet scam. We first encounter him on September 12, on his way to midtown for a meeting with a lawyer who has filed a class action against the scammer. Only, when he gets there, the lawyer’s office is closed—as the sex offender puts it, he’s “pussied out of it.” Dee doesn’t often use the first person in his fiction, and it’s possible he found it liberating. He uses the phrase “paranoid asswipe.”

A woman at the post office bursts into tears. “The cause was real,” thinks our narrator, “but the effect was fake.” For the sex offender, it’s a world of pussies. On September 13, having nothing better to do, he tries again at the lawyer’s office, where a tearful paralegal wants to talk about the pets of the dead: “I just get overcome . . . thinking of all those thousands of pets, dogs especially.” “What a fruitcake!” responds the sex offender. Also moved by the thought of all those dogs is a coplaintiff in the class action named Mark Firth, the only other man present. He’s a contractor in from out of town, and nothing brands him as a pitiful rube like his belief that “nothing will ever be the same.” The sex offender, by contrast, believes that nothing will ever change, not even if thousands of your neighbors burn to death, so when he too starts in with the clichés, it’s hard to tell if he’s pulling Mark’s leg or planning to murder him. “This is going to sound kind of gay,” he tells Mark, “but I don’t really feel like being alone right now.” Of course, the nation’s in mourning, and Mark would rather seem gay than be mean. He invites the sex offender back to his hotel room, where after a strained attempt to heal together (they watch porn) the sex offender steals his credit card. Also, a wallet photo of Mark’s wife (“Outstanding tits”). As the sex offender sees it, it’s a teachable moment. He might be the first New Yorker to turn back into an asshole since the tragedy, but he’s confident he won’t be the last: “They’d forget, because that’s what people do, they forget what they feel. . . . They go back to being savages.”

When, the next morning, Mark makes his return trip on the Metro-North, the novel follows him, leaving the sex offender behind. From here in Dee’s perspective is omniscient, and you’re left wondering what the sex offender was to this story. Its muse? A long train and a short car ride later, Mark is back home in fictive Howland, Massachusetts, where townsfolk flock to greet him “like he was a POW on an airport tarmac.” “Well, technically, you are a survivor,” Mark’s wife, Karen, tells him. We also meet Mark’s daughter, Haley, and his siblings Gerry and Candace, to go with a gamut of townies: the first selectman, the postman, the “arguably hot divorcée.” They will anchor Dee’s portrait of Howland through the Bush years. There’s a bar everybody goes to and a land trust nobody cares about, a farm-to-table restaurant, a flux of summer people. Bleak and snug, it might be Middlemarch, updated for the toxic-loan years.

It is a world defined by its distance from money. Dee has tended to view small-town life from afar, and above. His most celebrated novel, the Pulitzer-nominated The Privileges (2010), introduced Adam and Cynthia Morey, an all-too-perfect couple who, blessed with a “shared talent for leaving all their baggage behind,” make a killing on pre-recession Wall Street. It’s a classic American story of the epic romance of two remorseless narcissists whose passion for each other is rivaled only by their love of insider trading. “That’s some end-times shit,” remarks one character of an anniversary bash Adam throws for Cynthia featuring Wyclef Jean and a private rental of the New York Public Library. The Locals, by contrast, might as well be called The Privations, and while it’s not a sequel to The Privileges, it could be that book’s counterpart, or consequence. It’s the other side of the late-capitalist equation that gave the Moreys more and more, and it too suggests a vision of how the world ends.

Does every American small town have a big house on a hill? In our novels they seem to. Howland’s is occupied three months a year by Philip Hadi. A hedge-fund billionaire, he’s the paradigm of a summer person, but after the attacks he decides New York isn’t safe anymore. “What I love about this place, it hasn’t gotten all precious,” Hadi tells Mark. “It stays what it is.” He hasn’t been a full-time Howlander long when he approaches Mark to install a home-surveillance system. Motion sensors will dot the forest. It’s delusional, but a billionaire can subcontract his delusions, maybe bend a little town to them. Hadi explains that he’d rather Mark work for him alone: “Exclusivity. Is that kind of thing done in your business?” If the arrangement has a flavor of the feudal, Mark’s too worry-ridden to dwell on it. Ever since his savings evaporated in that e-scam Karen has treated him like a feckless boy, and when a billionaire offers you a reprieve from your lousy life, you don’t say no.

In 2015, the conservative-talk-radio host Ken Ard mused on-air about then-candidate Donald Trump, whom he likened to a missile aimed at the government: “What I struggle with is, how bad do I want to blow it up?” Ard’s words give Dee his epigraph, and yet Hadi is hard to read as a stand-in for Trump. He lacks the bombast, the wives. His hair is apparently nonfictional. Meeting him for the first time, Mark reaches for the term “anti-charisma.” “Maybe that was part of what separated Mark from that class of man,” Dee writes. “Maybe he just put too much stock in the idea that everybody had to like him.” Maybe, if Mark becomes less likable, the billionaires will let him be one, too?

If Trump cares about anything, it’s ratings. Not giving a damn, truly steely self-centeredness—we associate these with an older model of Republican. Which means that Hadi isn’t Trump, in the allegorical scheme of Dee’s novel. He’s the guys before Trump. When the town’s first selectman dies of a coronary, Hadi runs for office the old-fashioned way, on a platform of tax breaks, which he’ll be subsidizing personally. Nobody much minds that a private fortune is standing in for a political idea. “That would be something new under the sun,” thinks the local cop—“if the town voted basically to let some sentimental billionaire pay their bills.” It is not a very close election.

The story of a man of few charms but great net worth who, citing Adam Smith as he goes, reaches out with his invisible hand and pussy-grabs a piece of the Berkshires, The Locals has an air of satire, but there’s nothing in here that’s implausible. It’s more like a tragedy about people who allow themselves to be made ridiculous. At times, we might be reading a magazine article about the rural death spiral that birthed the Trump voter. They’re deplorable, these locals, but are they culpable?

Perhaps it’s America that’s self-satirizing. It’s dusk in the Hadi home and all the bulletproof windows are installed when Mark confesses to his client that he wants to “reimagine myself.” “You want to make more money,” Hadi replies, and he’s not wrong: Mark’s idea of thinking big is to buy foreclosed houses and rent them to poor people. Socially it’s awkward but his paper worth jumps. “Settling into life as a slumlord?” his sister Candaceasks. Their brother, Gerry, soon joins Mark in the scheme; he’s been fired from his day job in real estate for sneaking his secretary into sale homes for sex. The secretary kept her job, though. “Why,” Gerry wonders, “because he was white and male?” Gerry discovers the internet, where he blogs about manliness, lambasting the nanny state (“Let Howland be the bathtub in which it drowns!”). He tries to bear in mind that he’s not Thomas Jefferson.

Not everybody is contemptible in The Locals, but it’s true that all the men are. Thinks Candace, of one boyfriend, “Andrew . . . was a classic local type.”

He thought he knew everything: he was overconfident and condescending and maybe two-thirds as good-looking as he thought he was and he had always gotten what he wanted because he was too dumb to understand how much else there was to want, outside of the life he was living, the life he’d always lived. The less he knew about something, or someone, the more superior he felt.

Conceited, incurious, prone to sexual boasting: a bad boyfriend, perhaps, but good material. Dee is the kind of funny writer whose funniness is indivisible from his pitilessness, but he can be a touch harsh in calling these subpar studs to account. “Always the smartest character in their own stories,” as Candace observes, they are anything but in this one, where it can seem fortune never smiles unless it’s readying the sucker punch. “Mo’ houses, mo’ money, basically,” says Gerry, circa 2005. “We can’t lose.” Does a slumlord who can’t cope warrant our pity?

Dee is a writer with enough style to hold some of it back, and he has a fine ear for the lurking bathos of rural life (one Howland shindig has “a turnout like an Amish barn-raising”), but he doesn’t try to be subtle. “Frankly democracy doesn’t really work anymore”: Hadi says this out loud. Still, he’s less of a little Hitler than a rich guy, impatient. For him, fascism is probably just a dirty word for efficiency. He first took to Howland for its nice “old-timey atmosphere,” and he will grease all the hicks he has to to ensure the old-timeyness continues. He will pay their hidden costs, and he will even pay for the hidden cameras—they appear one day on Main Street. If the result looks a little like a police state, it’s also a fine place to raise a family.

The publicity materials for The Locals mention Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as a reference point. In that novel, the hero, the architect Howard Roark, prefers to burn to the ground a housing project for the poor than let other people meddle with his design for it. It’s a book that makes a cult of inflexibility, and Hadi is a man after Roark’s heart. A kind of human architect, he has a vision for how you should live, but he’ll skip the part where you give him input. “If you let everybody vote on everything, some really destructive compromises and half measures are going to come out of that,” he says. He’s willing to rule them, in other words, he just doesn’t want to be bored by them. Picture him not looking up from his BlackBerry as a farmer petitioner tries to get to the point. But it’s all good so long as you don’t get in his face, disturb his obliviousness.

For Hadi, this obliviousness is the real security system. It is a panic room of the self, where other people can never get at you—a “world that was deep inside the world,” as Dee puts it in The Privileges. Think of it as the nice inside place rich people go when they haven’t been good but don’t want to feel bad. It’s a place Dee’s novels revisit. His last one, A Thousand Pardons, climaxes with the ordeal of a major movie star who may have murdered some girl, she was a temp, he can’t remember, they were smoking crack. The movie star comes out fine of course.

In The Locals, by contrast, even the poor people want to feel good, and they are careful not to think too hard about why maybe they shouldn’t. Little more than scenery to Hadi, the Howlanders return the favor by treating him as no more threatening than a check in the mail. He gets to feel old-timey; they get to feel smart. It’s civic life in its lowest form, mutual obliviousness. One of Dee’s many acid jokes is that this regime reaches a breaking point only after Hadi proposes a ban on cigarettes. The locals aren’t principled, but they are addicted, and they dig in their heels just enough. It comes as a shock when Hadi decides he’d rather return to Manhattan and cavort among the savages than pry the Kools from their laborers’ hands.

Too late, the Howlanders realize that such men leave town as quickly as they take it over; that, like Roark, Hadi is all too willing to burn it all down. The Howlanders stand to lose everything, but they’ll still throw in some kindling of their own. “When there was a crisis, a tragedy, you wanted it to change you,” thinks Karen after the towers fall, but by the end of the novel the emphasis has shifted: For you to change, the world must have a tragedy. Dee has written a book against sentimentality, and while brilliant it is unforgiving. Guided by Hadi’s little bribes, the locals slouched through their turns in his “country-bumpkin theme park,” and it leaves them “terrified of losing a life” they “couldn’t defend and didn’t really enjoy.” Without quite agreeing to it, they’ve become clowns. Their suffering is real, but their world is fake. You can see why they wanted to blow it up.

James Camp is a writer who lives in New York City.