Fic­tional Mass. town hosts a wag­ging tale of in­sight

The Denver Post - - BOOKS - By Eli­nor Lip­man

Shouldn’t a town that’s No. 6 on The Wall Street Jour­nal’s list of the 20 Best Places to Live in Amer­ica be idyl­lic? Then why is fic­tional Lit­tle­field, Mass., the set­ting of Or­ange Prize-win­ner Suzanne Berne’s fourth novel, crime- and angstrid­den? Lucky for us, much is roil­ing un­der its leafy trees, in­side its fine pub­lic schools and Vic­to­rian houses, home to 1,146 psy­chother­a­pists and 679 psy­chi­a­trists. Yet some­one is poi­son­ing the town’s dogs, a crime very likely prompted by an off-leash pro­posal that is di­vid­ing the vil­lage’s pro- and anti-dog forces.

Tak­ing notes on a sam­pling of the pop­u­la­tion is so­cio­cul­tural an­thro­pol­o­gist Clarice Watkins, who had re­ceived “high praise, and ten­ure, for her study of the ef­fects of global desta­bi­liza­tion on ur­ban ma­tri­ar­chal struc­tures, based on her field­work” in Detroit and Mex­ico City. “A small, portly black woman in an or­ange tur­ban,” she pops up to eaves­drop and an­a­lyze, ar­riv­ing as dogs are dy­ing. Con­ve­niently next door lives Mar­garet Down­ing, un­happy wife to in­vest­ment plan­ner Bill, who feels in­creas­ingly al­ler­gic to the wife he once found fetch­ing.

Berne art­fully por­trays Mar­garet as a pill, but a sym­pa­thetic one, “ap­pre­hen­sive, fret­ful ... overly sen­si­tive.” She is a for­mer teacher, now house­wife and mom, whose middle-schooler, Ju­lia, “her sad skinny child,” is a full-time worry. Her mar­riage is get­ting away from her, de­spite weekly coun­sel­ing ses­sions. And isn’t Bill ad­mir­ing his daugh­ter’s friend, Han­nah, with “skin so pure, eyes so clear”?

Not un­re­lated to the mar­i­tal at­ro­phy is Mar­garet’s at­trac­tion to lo­cal au­thor Ge­orge Wech­sler, whose bull mas­tiff, Feld­man, is the first dog down, dis­cov­ered by Mar­garet while walk­ing her bois­ter­ous black lab, Binx, through Bald­win Park. Like Mar­garet, Wech­sler is lonely— even if spot­ted with a blonde in bik­ing shorts/Span­dex top/no bra. He is re­cently sep­a­rated from his wife, Tina, and his book isn’t sell­ing well. Tina has moved back in with her mother, the im­pe­ri­ous Mrs. Beale, a voice for the anti-off-leash­ers. (“Let me ask you, do dogs pay taxes?”)

Tina as house guest is un­pre­dictable. “Bot­tles of chardon­nay crowded the re­frig­er­a­tor door where Mrs. Beale liked to keep her Lac­taid milk.”

Berne man­ages a nar­ra­tive that is twopronged: She is the true ob­server, the om­ni­scient eyes and ears of the book. Then, to fine comic ef­fect, there’s the jar­gon-y pon­der­ing of Watkins, who gets the town mostly wrong, judg­ing it through a pedan­tic so­ci­o­log­i­cal lens. Choos­ing Mar­garet as the face of Lit­tle­field, the pro­fes­sor sums up her sub­ject’s prob­lems as the “en­nui of a love­less mar­riage ... elab­o­rate sea­sonal dec­o­ra­tions ... blond sa­lon high­lights, yoga classes, skin cod­dled daily with serums and mois­tur­iz­ers that cost as much as the yearly in­come of a bean farmer in Ra­jasthan— all adding up to the worst kind of so­cial blight: the com­pletely self-ab­sorbed hu­man be­ing”— de­li­cious the­sis-speak, in just the right doses.

Also just right is a tour de force of a book group night fea­tur­ing Wech­sler and his novel, “Pitch Zone,” about a blind yeshiva stu­dent who dreams of be­ing the Yan­kees’ des­ig­nated hit­ter. The evening could be plucked from th­ese pages and put in a 21st-cen­tury time cap­sule to rep­re­sent “a busy woman drink­ing wine on an evening out, freed from kitchen tyranny and from help­ing with home­work, en­joy­ing the brief lux­ury of feel­ing for­tu­nate.”

“The Dogs of Lit­tle­field” is char­ac­ter­driven but not at a break-neck speed. The writ­ing couldn’t be bet­ter or smarter, even if the story is miss­ing adrenaline. The ca­nine mur­ders, all told, are a way in, a com­edy of man­ners with a dab­bling in who­dunit. Berne has an eye for flora and fauna that can feel un­duly arty. For those less re­warded by sen­tences such as “Pink cloud bergs drifted above them in the still-blue sky” or an au­tho­rial tic of nam­ing as many col­ors as pos­si­ble on one page, they might feel like reaches.

But hav­ing said that, her de­scrip­tions of all things hu­man and emo­tional are spot on, witty and so very smart. The work­ing ti­tle of Watkins’ never-to-be mono­graph is “Never Enough: To­ward a So­cio­cul­tural The­ory of Trained In­ca­pac­ity and Dis­con­tent in an Amer­i­can Middle-Class Vil­lage and the Ef­fects of Global Desta­bi­liza­tion on Con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of Good Qual­ity of Life.”

What a good job Berne has done, mak­ing the grandiose funny. Mar­garet’s toast at a won­der­fully awk­ward Christ­mas din­ner, “To all of our trou­bles,” leads Watkins to won­der why she, usu­ally em­bed­ded in trau­ma­tized places, has cho­sen to study the in­dulged and un­happy of Lit­tle­field. Her find­ings are prob­lem­atic. In­stead of the as-ad­ver­tised equilibrium, “she had stum­bled onto the most un­bal­anced peo­ple of all: they were afraid of ev­ery­thing.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.