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THY NEIGHBOR by Norah Vincent


by Norah Vincent

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-670-02374-5
Publisher: Viking

For any reader still suffering from the delusion that suburbia is Eden, this debut novel explores the sinister side, where “a dark shadow lay just on the other side of the picket fence.”

Though Vincent has attracted attention with her nonfiction (Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, 2006, etc.), this book will challenge the reader to get a handle on just what sort of novel it is, and it reads as if its author wrestled with a similar challenge. At its most clichéd, it’s a social indictment of modern suburbia—its broken families, its secrets behind those manicured lawns, its desperate promiscuity, its obsession with Facebook. But it’s also a whodunit, or at least a whydunit, as narrator Nick Walsh, an alcoholic, unemployed writer in his mid-30s, attempts to solve the mystery of his parents’ murder-suicide. Why did Nick’s father kill his mother and then himself? Was the unhinged Nick more responsible than he lets on, or even understands? Is he criminal or casualty or both? Nick identifies a little too much with Hamlet, while recognizing that “Any spoiled kid who has a vaguely philosophical bent, serious daddy issues, and a bleak outlook on life has thought of himself as Hamlet and thought himself mighty profound and soulful for doing so.” The novel (or Nick) tends to deal in generalizations and stereotypes (“You know the breed.”), while reducing practically every supporting character to a plot device. “How many horrible things are going on right now in any one of these houses?” he asks, though he is in a better position than most to know, since he has had cameras and microphones installed in the houses of his neighbors, which he monitors from his basement (again, more plot device than plausible). Ultimately, another mystery emerges, though the savvy reader is likely to untangle a crucial question of identity well before clueless Nick does.

The results fall through the categorical cracks, with the book succeeding neither as page-turning mystery nor as sharp social criticism.