In Jonathan Dee’s thoughtful and witty new novel The Locals, set in the years between 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street, dozens of the trends and ideologies that make up our current American moment come to insistent, demanding life. Dee hits both the fun pop culture trends and the scary political ones, because he can see how closely connected they are: farm-to-table foodie culture links to rising income disparities; the rise and subsequent fall of blogs links to the splintering of the media, the surge of Fox News and rising paranoia and Islamophobia.
But the most enduring idea running through the book, the one that is perhaps most vital to the America of 2017, is the deep and profound belief held by most of the characters in The Locals that they have been conned. Somebody has screwed them out of what they deserve.
For many of the characters — inhabitants of Howland, a scrappy small town in the Berkshires — that’s the truth. Somebody has conned them, to some extent or another. Mark Firth, a home restorer who dreams of bootstrapping his way to greatness, is conned quite literally: He loses everything in a Ponzi scheme and then has his identity stolen. Mark’s sister Candace is screwed over more imperceptibly: She finds herself caring for their aging parents with minimal help from Mark and their other brother, who managed to subtly shift the weight of responsibility onto her. At work, she gets talked into volunteering for a demotion from vice principal to science teacher.
For other characters, the well of resentment is less rational, but just as deep. Mark and Candace’s father is filled with fury for his wife because of her age and developing dementia. When she forgets to clean or cook, he feels that she has cheated him out of the retirement he meant to have, and he focuses his rage by consuming an unending stream of Fox News and conservative talk radio.
Crucially, Dee’s characters aren’t just vague avatars of rage or allegories for American political movements: All of them are rich psychological portraits, carefully grounded in their cranky small-town life. They’re all so well-defined that it’s a pleasure to watch Dee weaving in and out of their heads — in one particularly stunning sequence, he spends 50 pages switching perspectives every few pages, without ever once pausing the flow of the narrative.
But all of these specific, psychologically complex characters are still driven, in part, by the same feelings of dissatisfaction, bitterness, anger.
That sense of resentment has become fundamental to the story America tells about itself in recent years. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explains it with the image of a line of people waiting to reach the top of a hill. She elaborated on that image last year in an interview with Vox:
Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].
Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly.
The constant sense that someone has conned you is in some ways the dark underbelly of the American dream: If America is supposed to be a land where anyone can succeed if they work hard enough, and you’re working hard, why aren’t you succeeding? It must be that somebody is screwing you over — probably a minority, or the government.
And life in The Locals’ Howland makes resentment easy. It’s a summer town for rich New Yorkers, and the locals who live there year-round depend on the summer people and their tourist dollars as much as they despise them. Most of the locals literally live next door to immense wealth while they’re struggling to get by. How is that fair? Someone must have cheated them.
A possible redemption comes to Howland in the form of Philip Hadi. Hadi is a former hedge fund manager who moves to Howland after 9/11 because he thinks he’ll be safer there, and in a move that feels downright eerie in 2017, he runs for the office of town selectman on the idea that since he is already rich, he will be incorruptible.
He won’t accept a salary. Taxes, he promises, will be slashed. If any town emergency arises that requires extra cash, he’ll pay for it out of his own pocket. The town will be a libertarian paradise and have a robust social safety net, courtesy of Philip Hadi.
The town meets Hadi at first with rapture, and then with growing suspicion. Is he Howland’s salvation … or did he just buy them all off? “He won’t be happy until Howland is a kingdom,” one character seethes. “Are you willing to be his subjects?”
Hadi, they are sure, is running some kind of a con on them. Because in America, someone is always out to con you.
That idea is fundamental to how we think about America in 2017 — and it’s what makes The Locals feel so vital.