Grand Central Station at 5pm is a briefcase ballet, dancers funneling into trains waiting to whisk them to the suburbs. Anders Hill was lately among them, heading home from the lucrative Wall Street job to the stately Georgian colonial where he and his wife, Helene, raised two sons. But as Anders crossed 60, he made a different departure: He quit the job, the marriage, the house. He bought a condo, decorated it with ersatz lobster traps, and proceeded to cross the line from outré to outrageous—accidentally smoking PCP with his ex-wife’s friends’ son at their annual Christmas party. (He thought it was marijuana.)
That’s just not how things are done in The Land of Steady Habits, the commuter Connecticut of Ted Thompson’s first novel and formative years. The series of tiny towns dotting the Metro-North tracks has been well-traveled by literary heavyweights including Richard Yates, John Cheever and John Updike. These are revered names to Thompson, who was a Truman Capote fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, though one aspect of their genre failed to truck with his personal experience.
“Many of the stories I was reading about the phenomenon of commuter life tended to be about people who are younger and kidding themselves,” says Thompson. “I didn’t know many people whose families were imploding when their parents were in their late thirties and early forties. That felt kind of cynical to me, but what felt true was the idea that you could get to a point in your life, after you’ve achieved the rewards that this work brings—a good college education for your kids, a big fat 401k, maybe even paying off part of the house—and then, once the kids leave, the realities of sacrifice have to be dealt with. They suddenly have to confront who they’ve become.”
Anders has become a far cry from the rebel he once was. He boldly defied his Southern father, Judge Portis Hill, by refusing to follow his footsteps to court. Instead he fled to Maine, attending Bowdoin College on scholarship, working long hours at odd jobs to meet tuition. “It was that instinct to reject everything wholeheartedly—the fantasy of the self-sufficient man,” says Thompson. But it was just that—a fantasy—because forty years later, while he may not be judging cases in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he’s the same sort of success his old man was.
As the Judge once admonished: “ ‘You can run around and pretend to be whoever you want. I don’t care—you can change your whole name. But one of these days the thing you’re going to need more than anything else is a sense of being. A home. And you can’t invent that out of thin air. It’s already been given to you. It’s where you were born, and like it or not, it’s who you are,’ ” Thompson writes.
The Land of Steady Habits asks what it means to be a modern man. In Anders’ community, it means domestication, impulses to hunt and conquer transmuted into something softer: providing and maintaining. In this safe mode of living, there are no formidable foes: “He made a habit of riding home in the bar car and mauling a can of beer nuts and then falling asleep before dinner. He spent his weekend battling weeds and doing violence to a hedge of English laurel...” Thompson writes.
Maintaining a healthy sense of one’s masculinity is what’s challenging. It’s difficult for Anders’ son, Preston, who took off to follow the psychedelic rock band Phish, got into and out of drugs, didn’t earn his college degree until 30 and still doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s difficult for Charlie Ashby, the doted-upon teenager with whom Anders forms an affectionate, destructive friendship. And even for Donny, Anders’ former college buddy, who moves in with Helene after reconnecting on Facebook.
The myth of self-sufficiency haunts these men in different ways. For Anders, an acknowledgement of how much he does need other people may afford his only salvation.
“I think by the end Anders has at least resigned himself to his need [for other people]. His journey is a kind of self-exile, but he ends up reconnected, understanding his need and appreciating it,” Thompson says. “In the process, he’s lost everything—but that can be the cost of enlightenment.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.