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