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The Locals
by Jonathan Dee (Random House, 383 pages)

12/14/17



 The Locals, by Jonathan Dee (Random House, 383 pages)

 
It’s the day after 9/11, and everyone in New York is dazed and whispering but for a lowlife peeping Tom who is irritated that everyone is being nice to each other and sitting in front of their televisions or weeping at their kitchen tables at night when he’s looking for action.
“I did not like it, man. I did not like the way people were acting. This was New York. People were always looking for an excuse to go off on you. They were hoping for it. Now it was like being in this cult,” he complains.
A few more pages of Mr. Merry Sunshine making his way around 9/12 and 9/13 Manhattan, and I was ready to toss The Locals out the window, not willing to give the character any more space in my brain. But the creep turned out to be incidental,  the first clever thread in a complicated tapestry Jonathan Dee weaves in his seventh novel.
That novel, The Locals, is about the denizens of Howland, a fictional town in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and how their lives are upended when a New York hedge fund manager moves there after 9/11, ostensibly because he had inside information that another large-scale attack is coming to the city. The financier, Philip Hadi, tries to fit in by buying boots and jackets like the townies wear, though his neighbor and contractor, Mark Firth, notes that he seems “a man incapable of wearing a T-shirt as anything other than an undergarment” and always wears a white dress shirt no matter what else he has on.
Hadi, at least, seems to want to be here, unlike his wife, Rachel, who seems to loathe the locals simply because none of them smoke. (“Of course you don’t. Nobody around here does. Stupid question.”) And when a death leaves an opening in the town government, Philip Hadi sidles into power, and begins operating outside of its laws: installing security cameras and paying many of the town’s bills himself, while refusing a salary. 
The locals aren’t quite sure what Hadi’s up to, but that doesn’t mean they turn him away when he comes calling with cash. They’re thick in their own personal dramas, which largely revolve around Mark Firth and his family, which include an increasingly estranged wife and an ethically challenged brother. Their travails — parents descending into dementia, jobs lost, marriages unraveling — are micro-crises occurring within the bruised decade that encompassed both 9/11 and the Great Recession and the housing collapse.
The locals waver between sullen and hopeful; as if blinded by the smoke that hung over Manhattan after the towers collapsed, they struggle to see clearly. Mark Firth renovated old homes with modest success before Hadi suggests he think bigger and start flipping houses. When Mark’s horrified wife points out that he’s been taken advantage of in the past, and the family doesn’t have a financial buffer to protect them, he explains why it won’t happen again.
“Because I’m smarter. I trust people a lot less. I don’t let anybody handle what I can handle myself. I’ve changed. You do believe people can change, right?”
Says his wife, “Actually, no, I don’t. I just get more and more like myself, every day, and so do you.”
With philosophical zingers like that, a sly wit, and the occasional startling truth (Henry David Thoreau, Dees writes, was the original Masshole), Dees keeps The Locals afloat, as Hadi does the town: at a cost. The novel often feels tedious, its detail too dense, its pace too plodding. 
And the expert plotting that links each character to the next can seem brilliant one moment, exasperating the next. The point of view changes rapidly, and it’s not always clear who’s talking as action ensues.
Dee, who was a Pulitzer finalist for his 2010 novel The Privileges and teaches at Syracuse University, has noted there is precedence in wealthy outsiders holding sway over small towns, as in Reading, Vermont (former Citigroup oil trader Andrew J. Hall), and Boothbay, Maine (Paul Coulombe, who once told Boston magazine that his childhood dream was “to own my own town”).  
It was a smart, even prescient, idea for a novel, and Dee insists he had no inside information on who would occupy the White House in 2017 when he began writing the book four years ago. (“The story of a disgruntled populace that asks to be governed by an unpredictable billionaire…. Nope, no relation there at all,” he said in a news release.) But The Locals suffers from the sort of societal division it seems to explore. The literati will love it; the locals won’t get it. They might think they do, but they will only see what they want to see. B-
— Jennifer Graham 





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