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‘The Locals’ review: A steady eye on small-town haves vs. have-nots

Jonathan Dee

Jonathan Dee Photo Credit: Jessica Marx

THE LOCALS, by Jonathan Dee. Random House, 383 pp., $28.

Jonathan Dee keeps a steady eye on the rich. It’s a cool, unblinking stare that registers a host of transgressions and everyday human foibles. It is not unsympathetic, but not especially sympathetic either. This novelist lets the reader make the judgments.

Adam and Cynthia Morey, the power couple at the heart of Dee’s 2010 novel “The Privileges,” rise to prominence in the New York philanthropic scene on the heels of Adam’s never-discovered insider trading deals. For Adam and Cynthia, great wealth justly rewards those who have it. No moral compass need get in the way.

Dee’s new novel, “The Locals,” hoists a rich New Yorker, hedge-fund manager Philip Hadi, out of his normal environment and plunks him down outside his comfort zone. Howland, the novelist’s fictional town in the Berkshires, rests in the southwest corner of Massachusetts where locals of modest means share summers with well-to-do out-of-towners. It’s a temporary marriage of convenience in which the locals receive a boost to the economy and the visitors enjoy a rural idyll. The downside: Resentment faces off against condescension.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Hadi decides to relocate his family to their summer place in Howland. He hires home renovator Mark Firth to rig up his fancy house with all sorts of security apparatus to keep out intruders. Mark has lost his savings to a phony, Madoff-style investment guru, and is desperate for cash. A man who reads inspirational guidebooks on how to succeed, he hopes to learn at the feet of this rich client.

This is a big, old-fashioned novel filled, aside from Hadi and his wife, Rachel, with a large cast of floundering locals. Dee shifts the point of view to each in turn, providing a wide-angle view on Howland anxieties. Mark’s wife, Karen, worries that her husband hasn’t a clue about money. His brother, Gerry, is fired from his real estate job after an affair with a secretary, and finally signs on to work with his brother, who won’t let him forget his failures. Their sister, Candace, loses her teaching job and struggles to make ends meet. Mark’s hardworking and hard-drinking carpenter, Barrett, rails against life’s unfairness.

Karen’s uneasy ruminations reflect those of her neighbors. After 9/11, she had hoped that her life would be charged with meaning, Instead, it’s been taken over by “the tiny aggravating reflexes that . . . just made your life what it was doomed to be.”

The privileged Mr. Hadi appears on this troubled scene like a savior on horseback. After the First Selectman (like a mayor) dies, he runs for the office, vowing to lower taxes and make town government more efficient. Despite his outsider status, his 5-year administration is wildly popular — he pays for town shortfalls out of his own pocket — save for populist rumblings from the internet. A veiled blogger, later revealed to be Gerry, sends out screeds about Howlanders’ loss of autonomy to “King Philip.” Ironically, Gerry’s success impels the town toward disaster.

We don’t see much from Hadi’s perspective, except for curt pronouncements like “democracy doesn’t really work anymore.” After what he calls his “grand experiment,” lasting from 2001 through the Great Recession, it’s time to head back to New York. The townspeople are left to cope on their own.

“The Locals” is a steady, intelligent probing of family ties and sibling rivalry and themes that illuminate how we live now — inequality and status envy, individualism and community, the high life and the good life. Dee falters only in a too-long introductory set-piece (33 pages) and an abrupt, inconclusive ending. Maybe, like Hadi, he just felt it was time to go.

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