Berkshires-based book 'The Locals' generating buzz
In Jonathan Dee's latest novel, "The Locals," the northwest Connecticut native highlights the complicated relationship that Western Massachusetts locals have with their part-time neighbors by examining the repercussions of a New York City hedge fund tycoon and his family deciding to stick around for good in a fictional Berkshire town named Howland.
"This was how towns like theirs survived, like it or not — people who grew up here usually tried their damnedest to get out, and outsiders and their money had to be attracted and accommodated," the book's protagonist, Howland resident Mark Firth, meditates after the Hadis build a house next door to Firth's.
Released in early August, "The Locals" has received considerable attention because of its author's prominence — Dee's last novel, "The Privileges," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 — and its political timeliness in the U.S., which was one of the reasons Random House moved its publication date up from next January, according to Dee. Not only does a novel about a rural community clashing with metropolitans represent, on a broad scale, the nation's present polarization, but Hadi's eventual election as Howland's first selectman also evokes an even more apparent U.S. political reality: a businessman entrusted to be a political leader.
"The thing that I could not have foreseen when I was writing the book was the [Donald] Trump election," said Dee, who began drafting the novel in 2013. "But a lot of the same ideas that I think carried him into the office have been around for a while, and one of them is that notion that the super wealthy ... know the secrets of success, and they can't be bought, so we should be led by them."
Despite the book's political subject matter, Dee doesn't believe that he or any novelist should aim to deliver a message, political or otherwise, in their work.
"Then you're really not writing a story anymore. You're writing a parable," Dee said. "I just wanted to find a way to write about some of the things that I feel like have taken place in America in the last 15 or 20 years, the kind of mainstreaming of certain ideas about government and its abolition, which really — it's kind of not even conservatism, really, but more like a kind of regression to the idea that your neighbor's problem is not your problem."
For Dee, much of this trend stemmed from the aftermath of 9/11, which is when his novel begins. The reader initially encounters Firth in New York City on the day after the terrorist attacks. The Howland resident is scheduled to meet with a lawyer who is bringing a class action suit against a financial advisor who conned Firth, a contractor constantly searching for ways to improve his lot. The lawyer is a no-show; he had fled the fractured city. Firth returns to the Berkshires, taking the train to Wassaic. His wife, Karen, greets him with relief, happy he's OK, but Firth still feels a sense of emptiness related to the family's middle-class status. When Hadi eventually enlists Firth to install security at his new home, the contractor seizes the opportunity to glean financial wisdom from Hadi, treating the New Yorker's advice as fiscal gospel. Hadi then shares his fiscal expertise with the community by volunteering to run the town after the prior first selectman's death.
This sense of a collective coming together after 9/11 temporarily masks the event's heightening of suspicions felt among Berkshires neighbors, especially with those of different upbringings. (Hadi's move is largely motivated by fears of another attack in the city that he claims are based on secret intelligence he is privy to, a rationale Dee based on a Hamptons acquaintance's behavior after the attacks.) But Hadi's unilateral decision-making as selectman unveils these divisions and challenges the town's — and Firth's — belief in him.
Dee is more than qualified to navigate the rocky relationship between small-town life and big city living because he has occupied both positions. Growing up in Litchfield County, Dee said that traveling to Great Barrington felt, ironically, like a "trip to the city." The Berkshires had enticing shopping and cultural events that weren't always available where he lived.
"I know it and remember it really fondly from growing up," Dee said of the county.
After graduating from Yale University, Dee moved to New York City, where he eventually started writing the book. He currently resides in Syracuse, N.Y., where he finished the work. He now ventures to the Berkshires while visiting family in Salisbury, Conn. He also recently spent a summer in New Marlborough while his kids attended camp in Lenox.
His familiarity with the region is apparent in this work. As the novel progresses through multiple town members' perspectives, references to cultural institutions such as Tanglewood and The Mount as well as many of the county's towns are commonplace.
At other times, Dee appears to be alluding to notable Berkshires attractions, such as a spiritual retreat, Asana, that evokes Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge. The author said he deliberately avoids setting scenes in places with a real name so that he can allow his imagination to wander.
"If you're going to use the real name of the place, then everything else [about the place] has to be absolutely real, too, and if it isn't, you've made a mistake," he said.
Dee said he could have set the book in any community across the country with a "weekender" contingent, but Berkshire County residents' appreciation for "foundational American ideas" and Dee's vivid memories of the area made the decision an easy one.
"I can close my eyes and see those towns," he said.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.