Mark Firth—one of the central characters in The Locals, the seventh novel from Jonathan Dee—is a contractor in Howland, Massachusetts, a town that once had a mill and jobs but for decades has been dependent on commerce from seasonal tourists and wealthy people from Boston and New York who own vacation homes in the region. Mark and his siblings Gerry and Candace are born and bred products of the area and, for reasons unique to each, couldn’t leave if they wanted to.
Even after being swindled in a bogus investment scheme, Mark clings to an unshakeable belief in the American Dream, the idea that if he works hard and invests his money smartly, he will prosper and enjoy life the way the wealthy people who vacation in Howland for part of every year do. Karen, Mark’s wife, doesn’t share this dream because she lost faith in her husband when he got taken by a con man he’d never even met.
Dee sets his story in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and just prior to the financial meltdown of 2008. Like that of the nation generally, the zeitgeist in Howland oscillates from fear of more terrorist attacks to euphoria as the housing market takes off. When Philip Hadi, a prosperous investment banker from New York City, relocates to Howland with his family, he hires Mark to make his home a veritable fortress, complete with a panic room, perimeter lighting, and security cameras. In time Philip practically takes control of Howland, running for and winning a seat on the board of selectmen and advocating for property-tax rebates that create a revenue shortfall, which Philip covers from his own pocket like a feudal lord. About Howland, Philip says, “But that’s what I love about this place, it hasn’t gotten all precious. It isn’t near enough to anything to be attractive to outsiders in that way. So it stays what it is, which is exactly how I like it.” And because Philip is affluent, he has the power to tinker with Howland as if it were his toy.
Until Philip comes along, the residents of Howland barely perceive that they are casualties of an unforgiving and unapologetic economic system. Philip’s haughty benevolence stirs in some of the locals, particularly Mark’s brother Gerry, a slumbering Yankee feistiness that rebels against being ruled by an outsider. Under the pen name PC Barnum, Gerry starts a blog that takes potshots at the town’s government, and becomes particularly virulent when Philip has security cameras installed on Main Street.
The Locals is the first novel of Jonathan Dee’s that I’ve read, and I wanted to like it but, with the exception of Haley, Mark and Karen’s teenage daughter, felt no affinity for any of the characters. Haley at least attempted to exercise some agency. Displaying an understanding beyond her years, Haley thinks, “To ask for any redress from the powerful, however small or just, was a tactical mistake. You gave up the only weapon available to you, which was to deprive them of their power to say no.”
As I read The Locals, I couldn’t overcome the feeling of being held at a distance, of standing on the front porch rather than being invited inside.