Donald Trump’s presidency dangerously exacerbates the political tension between warring neighbors in this debut novel.
Rick and Kate Sullivan live a pleasantly predictable life in a quiet suburb—he sells janitorial supplies and she’s a grade-school teacher. But raising four daughters is a costly affair, and times are tight. Rick feels pinched by an unfair economic system run by condescending elites. He’s a deeply religious conservative who interprets Trump’s rise to the presidency as a hopeful sign that the country is back on track. Meanwhile, Kevin Harrison, his next-door neighbor, is a committed liberal with a Mexican wife, two daughters, and a son. Kevin loathes Trump and sees his victory as a sign of moral and intellectual decline. Rick and Kevin had long managed to maintain cordial civility, but Trump’s presidency turns out to be a tinderbox of recrimination, and the resentment between the two quickly escalates. McKissen astutely explores the deep reserves of mutual misunderstandings between the two: Kevin is jealous of Rick’s well-respected family name, but he’s far from wealthy or privileged and suffers from a sometimes-debilitating mental illness. Meanwhile, Rick is put off by Kevin’s arrogant sense of superiority, though he’s actually cripplingly unsure of himself and comes from a monstrously poor and dysfunctional family. In a way, they’re both wrong and right: Kevin is maddeningly dogmatic and full of hubris, and Rick is a religious zealot capable of deeply racist sentiments, but they’re also extremely complex. The author bravely tackles an urgent contemporary issue—the blinkered way political differences quickly get translated into facile ad hominem venom, killing the opportunity for meaningful dialogue. The author deftly depicts the real common ground shared by the two and their sad inability to discover it. McKissen’s portrayals are impressively compassionate—both protagonists are worthy of equal measures of contempt and empathy, which is necessary for the story’s message to have any power. But there is an unambiguous lesson here, and its conveyance adds a preachy didacticism to the novel—the author’s proselytizing at times comes off as condescending.
A thoughtful but judgmental drama.