I’ve been reading about how the “suburban novel” is making a comeback, and every time I encounter this claim I ask the other person in the room or myself or the wall—come back from what? If the suburban novel flirted with extinction it was in late September 2001, when, for approximately one hour, it seemed in poor taste to bemoan the soul-annihilating side effects of sheer comfort (if anyone can name a suburban novel that espouses the spiritual gains made by inhabitants of a center-hall colonial, please alert me to it) given that this sentiment was too uncomfortably similar to those expressed by certain building-annihilating terrorists.
I mention this only because Stephen Amidon’s excellent new novel, Human Capital, is being billed as one of these comeback suburban novels. But though its setting is the Fairfield County town of Old Totten, its psychic quarry is not the blandifying (or perversifying) effects of comfort, nor is the novel a portrait of the bohemian city couple coming to terms with their cowardly love of subdivision security. It is no Revolutionary Road. Human Capital is grippingly bleak, yes, it’s a page-turner with that Yatesian gravitational pull of inevitable doom, and—best of all—it made me feel very queasy about my own prospects, in the way that only really good books can. But Human Capital is not about the suburbs. It is about money, and as such Amidon’s antecedents are not Cheever and Yates, but Anthony Trollope: particularly The Way We Live Now, Trollope’s once-maligned masterpiece, which critiqued, among other things, the way money could render an otherwise loathsome, amoral person powerful and socially desirable. In other words: it’s a critique of certain icky, human side effects of capitalism.
Amidon’s take on capitalism is no less human and icky, but to call his novel a critique could possibly undersell the novel’s artful refusal to condemn or condone. It is morally complicated, populated by potentially good people driven to do not-so-good things for understandable, if not excusable, reasons. Drew Hagel is about to lose his home and his business and probably his second wife due to a bad investment. Amidon’s Augustus Melmotte (for those familiar with Trollope) is Quint Manning, a man who is powerful as long as he remains rich. Unfortunately, Quint’s hedge fund is in the dumps, his son is a fledgling drunk, and his wife has the hots for an academic film critic. An accidental death throws suspicion on the wrong person, but for those who know the truth, questions of ethics are shunted aside for the marvelous blackmailing opportunity the tragedy provides—especially for the desperate Drew. But is this blackmail? Or could Drew’s crude opportunism be construed as the noble act of a man who will do anything to save his family? Or, possibly even more noble, could Drew be celebrated as a failed, flabby-willed businessman who finally hones his instinct for the capitalist kill? Any conclusion seems tenable, a lovely ambiguity made possible by Amidon’s fallibly human characters. Drew is a sympathetic schemer of a man, Quint a chilly hedge-funder with a heart, Quint’s spoiled, silly wife not really so spoiled and silly. Everybody wants to do right by his or her family, but doing so almost always involves an exchange of cash.Whether this cheapens the sentiment or elevates it to the highest American form of sacrifice, well, Amidon leaves this for us to decide.