Au­thor fol­lows in im­pres­sive foot­steps

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Mor­ley Walker

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

Habits

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