Jonathan Dee’s new book opens like a dystopian novel, with an unnamed narrator wandering through a deserted Manhattan (‘Broadway was frozen, like a screenshot’). Something happened in the city a day or two earlier and now his prearranged meeting with a lawyer has been thrown into doubt. We get intriguing clues about him: he’s a habitual porn user; he makes ‘people nervous, I don’t know why’; he is ‘technically … still not supposed to be in playgrounds’. His meeting was to be about a lawsuit for compensation after he was hit by a bus: ‘As long as you don’t die it’s like hitting the Lotto.’ But the lawyer has gone AWOL, the meeting is cancelled and he ends up sharing a hotel room with another lawsuit claimant. He robs the other man and flees from the hotel room. It’s a great setup. Unfortunately, the dystopian setting turns out to be just another post-9/11 scene and the interesting narrator of this section doesn’t appear in the rest of the book. This opening (portentously numbered chapter zero) is, in other words, the best thing on offer.
The titular locals are inhabitants of Howland, a town in Massachusetts, with a variety of traditional jobs: teacher, building renovator, councillor, student and so on. Dee introduces each of them with a potted history, which should make it easier for the reader to keep track of them, yet they are so undistinguished in personality that a list of dramatis personae would also be helpful. (Even their names – Gerry, Marty, Karen, Mark, Jack, Joanna – are boring.) Dee’s fussy way of introducing each character or family, of bringing the reader up to speed rather than dropping them in medias res, robs the story of verisimilitude: there’s no feeling of happening upon an interesting moment in a life. The author’s thumb is on the scales from the start. We learn about the minutiae of their lives and the grind of Howland’s local government. There are affairs, sackings, family bust-ups – the usual sub-Updikean small-town content.
The most distinctive inhabitant of Howland is a new one: Philip Hadi, a wealthy financier who has gone there to escape New York after 9/11. Mark, the renovator and the man robbed in chapter zero, is hired to carry out security work on Hadi’s home. Another neighbour rants about Hadi’s presence in an anonymous blog. Rather suddenly, Hadi becomes central to Howland life. This should come as a surprise to the reader, but it doesn’t, because the jacket for The Locals announces: ‘A rural, working class New England town elects as its mayor a New York hedge fund millionaire…’ He doesn’t become mayor until halfway through the book, yet because of the blurb, the reader has been reading everything in anticipation of this.
In fact, once we catch up with the blurb and Hadi is elected mayor, the book becomes more interesting. Hadi’s wealth enables him to shower funding on the town’s institutions while seemingly expecting little in return, though his self-made man’s lack of interest in the views of others is not an ideal characteristic in an elected politician. He is the most intriguing character around because we never find out what he’s thinking. Mark, working on Hadi’s home, seeks to emulate him by moving into property development just as the subprime collapse looms. Then, when Hadi resigns, Howland struggles with austerity, and there are worthwhile discussions between characters on how we value what governments provide (which backs up the rest of the publisher’s blurb proclaiming this ‘a novel for our times’, though perhaps not an ‘urgent and inspired’ one).
Dee has some interesting techniques too, such as one eighty-page chapter in which the narrative passes from one character to another without interruption, like a virtuosic tracking shot. And he sometimes captures aspects of modern life in satirical asides: fashionable restaurants that feed you stuff that looks ‘like it came from the woods behind your house’. But after Hadi’s departure, The Locals struggles to find another focus, flitting between characters and subplots that never take flight. Dee was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his 2010 novel The Privileges. The publication of a novel as mediocre as The Locals can only suggest that that reputation is carrying him still.