Jonathan Dee, whose novel The Privileges was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, has always been a writer to watch, and sure enough, his seventh book of fiction, The Locals, is a stunner: ambitious in scope, serious and funny, compassionate, but unsentimental. Dee follows the lives of the residents of Howland, a small blue-collar town in the Berkshires, in the period immediately following the attacks of 9/11, and gives his readers America in a microcosm. Here, Mark Firth, a young contractor who was briefly stuck in Manhattan after the towers fell, travels home to Howland on a nearly empty commuter train. In Dee’s hands, the train seems to travel through time, from the peak of the industrial era, when robber barons built the trains and traveled in them to their rustic palaces, to the contemporary reality of life in rural towns like Howland, where there isn’t quite enough work to go around.
We hope you’ll enoy this excerpt of The Locals, which was generously provided by Dee’s publisher, Random House.
The lazy, nearly empty train ride north to the end of the line, the long featureless ditches and bright foliage, the towns diminishing in size and vitality – White Plains, Pleasantville, Valhalla – all of which looked like ghost towns now, though maybe they’d looked the same a few days ago, before the air of loss had attached itself to everything. Mark was one of just three passengers in his train car. At Brewster came the transfer onto a much smaller train – a Budd car, it was called: the term popped back into his head from boyhood, when he was obsessed with such things -- and there he found himself the only passenger at all. He leaned his forehead against the scratched plastic window and watched the trees flow by, lifting his gaze only when the conductor came to ask softly, almost apologetically for his ticket.
“Thought there might be more people getting out of the city,” Mark said.
The conductor, a man about Mark’s age who wore a short-sleeved white shirt and a tie with a clip, expelled air through his nose. “Need to bomb those people flat, is what we need to do,” he said.
They seemed to be talking about different people, but the misunderstanding wasn’t worth pursuing. Mark passed him the return portion of the round-trip ticket, purchased Monday, and saw him linger over the date on it.
“Get home safe,” the conductor said. Mark mouthed you too.
Old towns, colonial towns, towns too far north to posit themselves as suburbs. Rusted swing sets and above-ground pools in back yards perpendicular to the tracks. He felt like one of those nineteenth-century robber barons with his own private rail car, except for a lot of things, principally the absence of food and the faint mildew smell and the deep cracks in the vinyl upholstery of his and most every seat and the faint, permanent stains on the murky industrial linoleum of the floor. Mark couldn’t think offhand where you might go to replace that grade of linoleum anymore. It had to be as old as the car itself.
Why was there no one else on the train? Maybe because you were now supposed to think of mass transit as a target. It was pretty hard to consider this particular train, which ran in a straight line away from New York City for two and a half hours and then just stopped in the middle of nowhere as if due to an expiration of interest, an asset worth the resentful or strategic notice of anyone anywhere. But danger and ill will were loose in the world, anarchic and unreasonable. He could see the back of the neck of his conductor, sitting in the front seat of the car with his hat on, gazing straight ahead, at attention, Mark imagined.
In the parking lot in Wassaic he found his truck – Karen wasn’t comfortable driving it, so he hadn’t wanted to leave her without the Escort for a few days – and continued north up 22, through the valleys of stony farmland, cows standing dumbly on the slopes. In Hillsdale he turned east on 23 and crossed the state line. He’d told Karen what train he was taking just before he left the hotel. He was low on gas but he didn’t want to stop, and anyway his credit card was missing; he thought maybe he’d left it with the front desk, for incidentals, when he checked in to the hotel. He didn’t specifically remember doing that, but then he barely remembered Monday at all. In Howland, just a mile from home, he was suddenly nervous at the two stop signs he had to observe; he didn’t want anyone to see him, or even the telltale truck with his name on the side. They’d make a fuss. He’d been touched but mostly embarrassed by Karen’s report of friends and neighbors and even people he’d never liked very much standing on the Town Hall steps holding candles and praying for him. “Well, technically, you are a survivor,” she’d said. “It can be looked at that way. Anyway, you just put a face on the whole thing for everybody, that’s all. Otherwise it’s so massive people don’t even know how to pray about it, what to ask for.”
“But it’s just so random that I’m here at all,” Mark had said.
“It was random for everybody. Right? It was just as random for the people who were killed. It’s not like a bunch of soldiers dying. Just a bunch of people going to work. But those people are heroes now.”
Were they heroes? He guessed they were. You could become a hero without doing anything, if your end turned out to mean something to others. Anyway, he could certainly admit now, to himself at least, how frightened he’d been. He took the last bend before his turnoff and another car, one he didn’t recognize, honked as it passed him going the other way. Mark flinched and waved at his own rearview mirror, and then swung left onto the dirt road that led to his driveway.