An accidental American allegory
Jonathan Dee’s keenly insightful, gently humorous seventh novel, set in a small town in western Massachusetts, was scheduled for publication in 2018. Then came the 2016 presidential election.
“Obviously the book reads a certain way now that I couldn’t have foreseen when I started writing it,” Dee says during a call to his home in Syracuse, New York. The Locals is a novel with an enticing ensemble of vivid small-town characters with many stories to tell. But the narrative thread that vaulted the book to the front of the publication queue has to do with Philip Hadi, a somewhat mysterious and very wealthy New York money manager who owns a summer place in Dee’s fictional Berkshires town of Howland. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Hadi receives secret intelligence through the elite circles he travels in that more attacks are imminent and moves his family to their summer home in Howland. He eventually is elected first selectman of the town and through a blend of generosity and paranoia begins to reshape the town in his own image.
“The idea that the extremely wealthy not only possess a special skill set but a sort of moral purity has been around for a while,” Dee says, talking about his conception of Hadi. “That only the really rich can lead us seems like a very American idea. I was thinking of Michael Bloomberg and Ross Perot. What fascinates me in terms of the role of class, class conflict and class aspiration in American society is the idea that if you get a little bit rich, you’re venal and corrupt, but if you get really rich, you’re a special kind of human being.”
Then there are Mark Firth, a less-than-rich local contractor, his wife and young daughter, and his increasingly disorderly brother and sister. By chance, Firth, a victim of financial fraud, is in New York for a lawsuit during the 9/11 attacks. The Firths have deep roots in Howland, and simply because Mark returns safely from the 9/11 disaster, he is greeted, to his consternation, as a hometown hero. Firth is soon hired by Hadi to improve the security of Hadi’s home. After a casual conversation with Hadi about his middle-class American aspirations to better himself, Mark decides to buy foreclosed properties and flip them, with increasingly mixed results. From there, this smartly observed story moves forward without looking back, presenting the love and small betrayals of family and village life, and playing out on a small-town scale the bitter conflicts that plague the nation.
“I wanted to find some way to write about what I felt had happened in American life in the first 10 or 15 years of this century, the mainstreaming of the once-radical idea that your problems are not my problems,” Dee says of his early musings on the novel. “When I thought about what had happened to our discourse about government and the social fabric, I had the idea that it begins with 9/11—technically the book begins on 9/12—with that intense reaction to what had happened: the coming together, the selflessness, the collective pride. That was real but it was also a reaction to something specific. I feel that gave way to an equal and opposite reaction over time, and a sort of panic about collapse and an every-man-for-himself mindset resulted from that.”
“The book reads a certain way now that I couldn’t have foreseen when I started writing it.”
Dee, who is best known for his fifth novel, The Privileges, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, began working on The Locals in 2013 in his tiny Manhattan apartment. He finished the book in the old house in Syracuse that he shares with his partner, novelist Dana Spiotta. Both now teach in the Syracuse University writing program. “It’s a tonic just to be around very talented young artists who are struggling with the same things that you struggled with and continue to struggle with,” he says of teaching. Dee says he grew up in a town not far from the location of and not unlike his fictional Howland. He clearly draws heavily on his personal experiences in creating the novel’s sharply drawn characters and locale. “There was a summer population that really changed the character of the place, particularly economically,” he says of his hometown. “And when the summer ended, the place changed or reverted. That dynamic of both depending on and somewhat resenting the temporary population is a really interesting one.”
Curiously, another source of inspiration for The Locals was George Eliot’s Middlemarch. “One of the models I very modestly had in mind was Middlemarch,” Dee says hesitantly in response to a question about the novel’s portrayal of neighborliness and small-town society. “The surprise for you as a reader is that when you get really far into this long book, you realize that the characters you have grown to know so well and who live in a very confined space don’t know each other all that well, and that’s because they occupy different social realms.”
The action of The Locals unfolds during a span that on the national scene roughly parallels the time between the 9/11 attacks and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not the most cheerful of eras.
Asked if he thinks his novel is pessimistic or hopeful, Dee points to the character of Mark First’s daughter, Haley, who we meet when she is in second grade. “Ten years in the life of Mark First is momentous, but he’s still Mark First,” Dee says. “But 10 years in the life of somebody who starts the book so young is a much, much bigger deal.”
Dee continues, “I gave a copy of this book to a friend to read. One of the things she said was, it’s interesting, your last three books have been similar in that they’re about well-meaning parents screwing up. But they manage to end on the hopeful figure of the child. Honestly, that would not have occurred to me in a million years. But when I thought about it, I thought she was right. And that seemed like a good reason to dedicate The Locals to my own hopeful child, Claire.”
(Author photo credit Jessica Marx.)