Author follows in impressive footsteps
THE affluent East Coast suburbanites in American literary writer Ted Thompson’s impressive debut novel have obvious forebears. These sad men in their grey flannel suits, with their Pinot Grigio-sipping wives and drug-addled teenagers, harken back to the lost characters in John O’Hara’s fiction in the 1940s and ’50s. From here you can draw a straight line through the work of John Cheever, Richard Yates, John Updike and Rick Moody, all of whom have captured the quiet desperation of the Manhattan commuting class. One novel does not guarantee Thompson entry into this exalted club — he has until now been published mostly in literary journals — but The Land of Steady Habits contains sufficient evidence to place him on the waiting list. For one, the writing itself is fine — never showy but always several steps above workmanlike. More important, Thompson displays imaginative empathy for characters of a wide age range, though he himself is just 30-ish. His protagonist, in fact, is in his early 60s. Anders Hill, newly retired from his career in high finance and recently divorced, attends a post-Thanksgiving party thrown by longtime neighbours of his and his ex-wife’s. “Divorce, he’d learned early on,” Thompson writes, “was not so much from your spouse but from all the things you’d forged as a couple — the home, the parental authority, the good credit, the friends.” The setting is WASP Connecticut in 2011. In the opening pages, Anders has a couple of ill-fated exchanges at the party, one with his ex-wife, Helene, and her new boyfriend, and another with his host’s wayward teenage son, both of which reverberate throughout the story. The main action takes place in the weeks between the party and Christmas, as Anders attempts to come to terms with late-life crisis. But right off the hop, Thompson cuts back in time to Anders’ own college years to fill in the details of how the boy became the man. This involves escaping the influence of his “big shot” father, a judge in North Carolina, attending a minor college as a scholarship student in Maine and marrying Helene, who had been hockey-player roommate’s girlfriend. (Echoes of Geoffrey Eugenides’ 2011 bestseller The Marriage Plot can be heard in these pages.) But it’s in the section where Thompson outlines Anders’ professional life that his thematic intent really lies. Always ambivalent about the ethics of his job financing housing developments, Anders carries his unhappiness home to the suburbs. It’s no coincidence that Anders retires in the years following the U.S. subprime mortgage collapse. Thompson draws explicit parallels between the failure of Anders’ marriage and the rot at the heart of the American economy. The novel’s title, left unexplained by Thompson, is a nickname for the state of Connecticut, apparently referring to the residents’ moral rectitude. Its use here, need we say, is ironic. The Land of Steady Habits isn’t perfect. Its narrative structure is almost too airtight. Sometimes it feels as though it has been workshopped to within an inch of its life in MFA courses. Also, Thompson’s decision to switch points of view to Helene and a couple of the younger characters strikes a discordant note in what is primarily Anders’ story. But these are defensible decisions overall. With a few more books under his belt, Thompson could be a real contender. Morley Walker retired this winter from the Free Press after many years as books editor,
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The Land of Steady