Beguiled by Wealth

The Locals

By Jonathan Dee

A very rich man, Philip Hadi, decides to make the small New England town of Howland, situated in southwestern Massachusetts, his family’s permanent home. Though something of a gnomish fellow, he possesses a feature which at once puts the locals off and thoroughly beguiles them. That something is his fabulous wealth and how he uses it to exercise his will over the town. And how he inspires a man, Mark Firth, to dream big and go for it with foreclosure purchases and renovations, in other words, house flipping. The point of the whole thing boils down to pathetic irony, for everything hoped for and promised devolves into the opposite.

The novel opens in New York City immediately after 9/11 with the first-person account of a grifter flummoxed by the general feelings of bonhomie and unity among New Yorkers. This, he grumbles often, is not New York. He cleaned up suing the city when he drunkenly walked in front of city bus. Promptly, he lost his winnings to a bigger grifter, an investment swindler, making him part of a class action suit. Which introduces readers to the central character of Jonathan Dee’s The Locals, Mark Firth, who is a small time contractor in Howland, also robbed by the investment swindler. By the end of the opening pages, Firth returns to Howland, once again raked over the coals of life, the victim of identity theft. Mark, oh Mark, you indeed are a mark, borne out by the balance of the novel.

Life in Howland is none too good. As with the rest of America at the time, fear consumes people. Even the Philip Hadi types, a Tom Wolfe “Master of the Universe,” are taken aback, which accounts for Hadi’s resettlement in Howland. Beyond that, though, Howland is a town in economic trouble. Mark, while better off than most, finds himself among them, with work scarce, his credit destroyed, and his marriage to Karen shaky, partly as a result of the financial swindle. Hadi proves a godsend, providing Mark with plenty of work and money to fortify the millionaire’s house against the fearful shadows of imagination. Rubbing elbows with Hadi plants in Mark’s mind the idea of possibilities. Here’s the thing about realizing financial possibilities: you’re lulled into believing the good times will go on forever. Then something like 2008 happens (the bookend of the novel).

Back to Howland. Taxes are rising and the populace isn’t happy. So when Hadi tells the locals he knows a way to treat them to more services and reduce their taxes, they make him First Selectman (mayor in New England parlance). And he delivers, covering a huge number of expenses out of his own pocket, while cutting their property taxes. Not to put too fine a point on it, they trade the American myth of rugged individualism for a few pieces of silver. Not everybody misses this. Mark’s brother, Gerry, for instance. He works in a real estate firm, which he hates, and from which he is fired. On the q-t under a pseudonym he rabble rouses about independence in a newsletter that not many read, until he becomes a pawn in a small-town political coup, exasperated when Hadi decides it’s safe to return to the city, taking his support of the town with him.

Mark, Karen, and Gerry are but three of a cast of small town characters, all with his or her own sets of problems and axes to grind, including Mark and Karen’s preteen daughter Haley, and their sister Candace, who manages to lose her teaching job, end up as librarian/social worker, and functions, to her unhappiness, as the caretaker of their ailing parents.

There’s more, but this is the gist. You’ll find much truth here. If you are from a small town, you may recognize how well Dee captures its essence. And while this all may sound a bit downbeat, Dee manages to find enough humor to prevent readers feeling too miserable. Many will find the novel a fair assessment of America life, of fears and hopes, in the first years of the 21st century. w/c

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The Outlaw’s Daughter Grows Up

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

By Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti merges two genres, coming of age and crime thriller, into a powerful tale of a daughter learning about her often absent outlaw father, then bonding with him, accepting him for the imperfect man he is, and discovering her own inner strength. Though filled with violence and plenty of death dealing, it ultimately finishes on a hopeful note, and stands as a testament to the goodness and love within even the most ruthless people.

The novel alternates between Loo, the daughter, growing up from age twelve to just shy of eighteen and the nomadic life of her father, an outlaw who freelances in crime. You have Loo and Hawley living together, learning about each other and Hawley’s criminal life centered around how he came to acquire eleven gunshot wounds. How he received these and curiosity about how he will get his last, the twelfth, plus how Loo will react when she discovers what Hawley really is, provide the propulsive drive of the novel.

Hawley has been a criminal nearly from the time he was a teen. He hooked up with Jove, an older man who claimed to be a doctor. Maybe he was, because he teaches Hawley quite a bit about field treating injuries, especially gunshot wounds. Hawley travels with a well stocked medical kit. Bad guys, after all, can’t just present themselves in emergency rooms. He and Jove see each other when they are working on a job for a kingpin named King. King deals in rare artifacts, which Hawley and Jove retrieve for him. When contractors steal from him, King dispatches Hawley and Jove to collect and mete out the criminal version of justice.

King’s a man who lurks in the shadows. Hawley meets him for the first time in a diner, where he also mets Lily, a memorable pairing. Eventually, he marries Lily. They have a baby, Louise, nicknamed Loo. Something terrible happens to Lily, reported back in her hometown as a drowning. This leaves Hawley with Loo. Hawley, though, has business to take care off, so he leaves Loo with Lily’s mom, Mabel Ridge, an eccentric and crusty character, in the coastal New England fishing town Lily grew up in. Hawley returns after four years and takes Loo back. With her, they traverse the country, dodging whatever Hawley believes wants to find them.

Finally, when Loo is older, they settle in the New England town. When she turns twelve, the start of the novel, he teaches her how to shoot. Let’s just say her upbringing bears not the remotest resemblance to that of Anne of Green Gables. She’s odd girl out at school, terrifically strong-willed, constantly rebellious, and sometimes given to violence. Marshall, a student in her school, develops a crush on her. When he kisses her, she responds by breaking his finger. He’s odd, too, and slowly they fit together.

Time passes and we readers she her relationship with Hawley change and deepen. We learn more about her mother, Lily, whom in spirit she bears a striking resemble to. And we feel a certain amount of tension, because it is quite clear Hawley lives an edgy life, waiting for something to happen, waiting for somebody to catch up with him. Then Jove reappears, surprising Hawley and Loo. And then we slid into a climax that calls on all the knowledge Loo has acquired, the astronomy she knows, what she’s learned about the ocean, and, of course, her shooting skills. The ending proves very cinematic.

While the novel contains copious amounts of crime and violence and the ending brings these together in the ultimate test of father-daughter bonding, it’s at its heart a story of girl growing and discovering herself and a father learning again how to love, this time his daughter. Tinti’s writing and mastery of criminal life, weapons, the outdoors, the sea, the sky, and human motivation will impress you, and are another reason to read the novel. w/c