The Locals

Jonathan Dee

Published by Random House US/ Corsair UK

8 August 2017/ 10 August 2017

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Like John Lanchester’s post-crisis, state-of-the-nation epic Capital, Dee’s latest is a generous slice of cultural and financial pie. Money, manhood, class, domiciles and democracy are the central pillars of a long, fully-populated social sweep that starts on 9/11 in New York City but then swiftly and permanently decamps to Howland, a small Massachusetts town in the Berkshires.

Hopping from character to character like a flea, Dee illuminates a community – school teachers, postmasters, selectmen, teenage vandals, entrepreneurs, diner owners, policemen – over an extended period of years as they respond to the arrival among them of a member of New York’s 1%. Philip Hadi, some kind of Wall Street money man, relocates his family to his holiday home in sleepy Howland after the terrorist attack and thereby sets in motion a seismic political shift.

Hadi is a blank slate of a character, more of a motivating force than a personality, but through him Dee marks the changes brought about by the post 9/11 mood and economy, notably the impact of outsize wealth on what had been the status quo, on personal ambition, venality, the Yankee spirit, and confused politics of early twentieth-century USA.

Howland votes Hadi into civic power as its First Selectman, happily forfeiting democracy for the sake of lower property taxes and ultimately higher property values. The citizens are happy for him to subsidize businesses and services out of his own pocket as part of a bargain that permits Hadi to take control of Howland as a kind of personal fiefdom. If Hadi wants surveillance cameras on Main Street and he’ll pay for them, then up they go, no discussion. After all, as Hadi remarks,’ Consensus really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’

While examining power, incremental change, the not-so-new politics of wealth, the role of the working man (and, to a lesser degree, woman) and much more, Dee fills the reader’s sightline with the loosely interwoven lives of his broad cast of characters. Most centrally, there are the three generations of the Firths: four siblings, their ailing parents, and one child. Around them extend lovers, laborers, acquaintances and passersby, extending the network, crisscrossing and intersecting with others as existences blossom, crumble, split, survive or just fade out of focus. Men’s perspectives – often sour, sad, centre-less, confused or angry – predominate.

The sweep is neither Dickensian nor epic. Instead, Dee keeps things devotedly humdrum, dodging  – after the opening chapter – anything resembling the high peaks of drama. Instead, by bleaching out the customary crescendos of fiction, he reaches for something less sensational, more tellingly quotidian. The result is a largely cliff-hanger-free agglomeration of interconnected existences reflective of the philosophies and dilemmas of one corner of a large nation in an evolutionary age.

This is an ambitious novel from a writer of reliable originality and intelligence. Dee’s mind is sharp and unsentimental; his wit is carefully contained. As a modern chronicler, his judgements are shrewd. The American character is given sympathy but not much quarter.

From the murky perspective of here and now – summer 2017 – it seems clear that the so-called greatest nation needs to keep a close eye on itself in the mirror while considering its legacies, values and truths. Dee does precisely that. He deserves to be read.

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