The Locals: A Novel
I wanted so much more for The Locals: a novel set between 9/11 and the Great Recession. The sort of British nineteenth century social novel written for the American twenty-first century. I wanted a novel that keenly engaged issues of class, culture, small town life, and told the story of the town alongside the story of deeply flawed, but interesting characters. I wanted to see our own age grittily explored with stabbing political statements and observations. It promised so much.
Instead, as a reader I received a book that was too easy to put down. At nearly 400 pages of prose if you’re not paying close attention, you’ll miss a gem of sentence amongst the meandering stories. I love thick books, but this one left me flat with neither compelling characters nor a clear message, nor the specific detail that makes a chronicle flourish. A sort of “democracy in miniature” (according to Kirkus Reviews), The Locals focuses on characters in the fictitious town, Howland, Massachusetts, who must figure out life alongside the wealthy weekenders. The novel follows the locals whose lives are are rearranged in response to a wealthy new resident, Phil Hadi, who promises to save the town, but to do so, as long as the town is remade in his own image.
The novel opens with the foul-mouthed, cynical narration of a scam artist after 9/11. Through his eyes we see not the story of how a tragedy helps bring out the best in people, but how it allows the wealthy and/or the profane to profit from it. Trying to get downtown for a business meeting to get his money back, he meets Mark Firth, also part of the class action suit. Mark, a contractor in Howland, has lost his savings in the bad deal yet he later returns to the small town a hero for simply having been in New York City on 9/11. Mark is the closest we have to a main character.
The Locals is comprised of an ensemble cast and with narration moving in and out of the consciousnesses of several Howland residents. In Dee’s novel, no character rises above mediocrity, even as they sacrifice family and connection for financial gain. Many, too, are not obviously vile (though some are), nor are any characters redemptive: they move in intricate circles turned in on themselves, yet they’re also strangely aloof to personal depth. The characters are maddeningly flat, not allowed moments of transcendence. They seem characters in a Greek play, destined and doomed.
The place too, is unremarkable. Howland is close enough to New York City for wealthy weekenders to feel they’re getting a bit of the country and yet the locals are in danger of losing out to the gravitational pull of larger cities. The farm-to-table restaurant with its fixed price menu at $400 a dinner puts Howland on the map, yet the town seems stuck in the teether-totter between the ultra-wealthy visitors and its blue collar workers. Who will win out?
In walks Phil Hadi, a wealthy millionaire, who, spooked after 9/11 moves his wife to a large house in Howland. Hadi hires Mark to outfit his home — installing every security device possible yet no one knows what the man who dresses like a local (still with his bespoke white oxfords under his fleece) really does. Mark decides to better himself, seeing Hadi’s wealth, which leads him to buying foreclosures and flipping houses before the housing crisis of 2008 (we know how this story will end up). We want motivation, intrigue, and a narrative thrust; yet Dee keeps patiently circling around characters, giving us a tableaux rather than a character study.
When one of the selectman dies, Hadi steps in offering to help bail out the town, stating, “Democracy doesn’t really work anymore.” And they believe him — after all, they can’t afford increased taxes. The remaining 200 pages then chronicle his ascent and eventual leaving of Howland for New York City.
It’s a timely novel. This story of a wealthy millionaire who effectively dismantles democracy in the small town — not through bombastic rhetoric, but by being precisely “benevolent” enough to bail out the town from emergencies and eventually its infrastructure — gives us much to think about. Clearly Dee, a keen observer (whose 2011 novel The Privileges was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) knows his way around social commentary. Yet, the novel leaves many questions unanswered, without calling the reader to struggle with and through them. What is the relationship of money and power to any sort of community (church, town, government, etc.)? What is a person’s obligation to the common good, and how does wealth affect that? What is our responsibility to others? Can we fight for something better than a more-or-less doomed existence?
This is why the novel feels ultimately disappointing: as much as the novel engages important questions, it lacks the grit and piercing insight that I hope would drive a novel of this sweeping social scope. And if a novel lulls us to sleep we must wonder: is the book not quite hitting the mark, or, is Dee being coy, allowing his reader to experience some of the vapidity of modern life while we read? Is The Locals’ lack of center a commentary on our own lack of moral center as a nation? Is its length a commentary on our day and age — where we say a lot of words but we’re talking past one another or could it just stand to lose 100 pages? Is Dee’s promiscuous use of language (particularly his fondness for curse words on each page) a comment on our own lack of knowledge or insight or ability to use words well? Or is it simply a book that needed tighter editing? We’re not given the answers.
We need more novels about class in America. We need to see ourselves in stark relief. While The Locals begins to ask good questions, the reader isn’t ultimately propelled into the story itself. We don’t care about Hadi, Mark, or even Howland, Massachusetts. And if we don’t care, we won’t work for change. This is perhaps how democracy dies — from lack of caring. Perhaps Dee would say we’re all as doomed as his fictitious small town.
Ashley Hales holds a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She is the wife to a church planter and mother to four in southern California. Her first book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much, will be released next year with IVP. Connect with Ashley at aahales.com.