Mark Firth doesn’t know what to make of Philip Hadi, the New Yorker who left Manhattan shortly after 9/11 to bring his family to Howland, a working-class town in western Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains.
Firth, a contractor, is happy to have Hadi’s business; he was hired to beef up security at the home Hadi usually left vacant for all but the summer. But he understands little about how Hadi made his money or his reasons for moving to Howland.
Unlike most people in town, Hadi has money, lots of it, and the clash between the town’s residents who want to emulate him and those who resent his influence drives the action of Jonathan Dee’s captivating new novel The Locals (Random House, 400 pp., ***½ out of four stars).
Dee deftly works in the same territory as novelists Russell Banks and Richard Russo to show life in the parts of the Northeast left behind by the modern economy. Mills have closed, jobs are gone, and there are only so many yoga retreats able to provide jobs.
Somehow, the residents of Howland elect the low-key and private Hadi as their First Selectman, essentially the mayor. Hadi uses his own money to balance the town’s books, which eases the tax burden but warps its democracy. Which, Hadi says, may have outlived its usefulness.
He also starts to chip away gradually at the traditions that, however ragged, kept Howland alive.
Part of the tension is between those who want to emulate Hadi and those who want him to go away.
Mark Firth is among the former. He starts to buy, rehabilitate and then rent houses in and around town, which fattens his checking account but alienates his family, including his wife.
His younger brother, Gerry, sells real estate, drinks too much and sleeps around when he has the chance. His sister, Candace, first teaches school and then finds a job at the local library. Only a second sister, Renee, lives outside of a 30-minute drive. In Colorado, she is “more like the idea of a sister.”
Howland, they eventually realize, is a Potemkin village.
It falls to Gerry Firth, often drunk and fuming behind his laptop as he writes a little-read blog, to set off the confrontation that drives the town’s final crackup. “The mood in the town was dark; everyone felt under attack,” Dee writes. “The response was not to come together but rather to protect everything one had against the depredations, real or imagined, of others.”