He has the intelligence to pull off a novel of this size but lacks, somehow, the killer instinct — the ability to move in for intensities of feeling and thought and action. He’s written a lukewarm book that seems far longer than its 383 pages. Consuming it is like being in one of those frustrating dreams in which you run and run but don’t go anywhere.
This is Dee’s seventh novel. (He’s also been a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, a senior editor of The Paris Review and a literary critic for Harper’s.) The one that displays his gifts most fully is “The Privileges” (2010), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. That book was about a young upper-middle-class couple and assorted amoral doings in Manhattan.
“The Privileges” too moved between multiple points of view and had a kind of Imax sweep. But it was more than 100 pages shorter than this one. Dee seized control of his themes; he dabbed his story’s pulse points with a more sophisticated scent.
Dee, who lives in Syracuse, clearly knows the Berkshires well and has a feel for small-town life there. He’s a warm, earnest, sympathetic writer whose sentences rarely cloy because he’s wired just enough of them from beneath with a low, almost subliminal, sarcastic hum.
One woman thinks, for example, about the semirural dating life: “A little gallantry, a little self-confidence, some well-muscled forearms went a long way in a small town like that, especially when you were young and dumb.”
This is a novel, to no small degree, about class antagonisms. The people in this novel’s small Massachusetts town, Howland, are struggling. They deride the rich weekenders who attend the expensive sessions at Asana, an opulent retreat, but they wonder what it’s like inside.
Asana is an obvious stand-in for the nonprofit Kripalu Center, in Stockbridge, Mass. (When I lost a yoga-centric girlfriend for several weeks to that place in the early ’90s, I was pleased to learn that some locals pronounce it Cripple You.)
Dee has fun mocking the affectations of a new restaurant in town, one that sounds a good deal like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the chef Dan Barber’s farm-to-table place in Tarrytown, N.Y.
One Howland resident, who drops $400 he can’t afford to lose on a dinner for two, reports: “They fed you stuff that looked like it came from the woods behind your house, served to you on things that weren’t plates. One course, he still remembered, was stuck onto old pitchfork tines. The cherry on this sundae of pretension was that they gave you a little notebook and a pencil, in order to write down God knows what.”
I’m quoting some of my favorite portions of this novel because a) Dee is talented, and b) life is too short to print mediocre writing. But there are too many lumpy homilies in “The Locals,” sections that read like monologues from lesser Arthur Miller plays. Here’s just one snippet of too-meaningful dialogue:
“Nothing I do means anything,” he said suddenly. “I just want to mean something. To stand for something. But it isn’t just me either. I feel like it’s all been, what’s the word? Like with gas?”
“Siphoned! Siphoned away from us. But by what? Or who, or whom I guess.”
(When members of The Band toured with Ronnie Hawkins early in their careers, they referred to gasoline siphons as “Arkansas credit cards” — you used them to get out of town, not to get stuck in one.)
The central character in “The Locals” is probably Mark Firth, a contractor who lost a ton of money in a stock swindle. When Hadi moves to town and Mark does some work for him, Hadi inspires him to branch out. Mark begins to flip houses. This is in the years before 2008, and we see Mark’s fate coming a mile away.
Hadi slowly takes over the town government and rules like a benevolent authoritarian. He reduces taxes by paying for almost everything himself. He installs security cameras. He’s a Big Brother who likes the patty melt at the local diner.
Hadi’s creeping authoritarianism — he’s a mini-Michael Bloomberg, unchecked in a town without a real newspaper — warps Howland and breaks its social compact. He’s given to utterances like “democracy doesn’t really work anymore.”
When he resigns from town government, having destroyed its tax system from the inside, people wonder where the money will come from. The answer arrives as if out of “The Grapes of Wrath”: “From all of us, together. The way it’s always been.”
You can appreciate this book’s timely politics — Hadi is an embryonic Trump, a breaker of things — while wishing they weren’t so heavy-handed.
Dee’s novel seems to run entirely in second gear. Reading it I kept thinking of the critic Leslie Fiedler, who wrote: “I have, I admit, a low tolerance for detached chronicling and cool analysis. It is, I suppose, partly my own unregenerate nature. I long for the raised voice, the howl of rage or love.”
“The Locals” paces the woods but refuses to howl.
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