A seemingly just-so family is thrust into a generationlong spate of turmoil.
Dacey’s debut novel in many ways feels like a throwback to the domestic yarns of Updike and Cheever, in which the tensions are relatively mild cases of white-collar crime and white-bread infidelity. We meet the Kelly clan in the early 1990s, as patriarch Robert, a real estate agent on the eastern coast of Massachusetts, sublimates his masculinity issues (domineering father, cushy German post during the Vietnam War) into cheating and an illegal land scam; and matriarch Irene, a one-time aspiring artist constrained by motherhood, drifts into bulimia and her own affair. Forced to absorb this unhappiness are their two sons, Nathan and Andrew. They’ve lost touch with dad, who drifts from scheme to scheme (professional gambler, car-maintenance racket pitchman); though mom is still in town, she’s emotionally distant. Midway through the novel leaps to the present day, as one son has some literal war stories and another is dissatisfied in his professional success. Dacey writes capably about a variety of milieus—real estate and construction, military, Cape Cod culture—with some moments of humor and absurdity. (Robert takes his young boys to see Full Metal Jacket; Irene has a meaningful run-in with The Exorcist star Linda Blair.) And, especially with Irene, he captures the slow-motion ennui that stalks stifled ambitions. (“Maybe that’s all a marriage really is, trying, failing, trying again, until one or the other gives up.”) But the novel overall feels like a stiff arrangement of scenes in service of a pat message that children inherit their parents’ baggage; Dacey's story collection, We’ve Already Gone This Far (2016), is filled with pungent tales of loss and struggle in working-class Massachusetts, but at novel length his storytelling is drier and more attenuated. And though the sweet-and-sour ending fits the overall mood, it’s also too carefully constructed to feel persuasive.
A wan, overly familiar portrait of domestic angst.