Book review: Patrick Flanery's Fallen Land masterful
Patrick Flanery's excellent second novel describes a similar arc as Tolstoy's parabolic short story How Much Land Does a Man Need? In Tolstoy's cautionary tale, a peasant-turned-landowner can't believe his luck when he is offered as much land as he wants for little cost, but his greed and over-exertions get the better of him and he goes on to pay the ultimate price. Flanery's novel also has land-ownership at its centre, together with the downfall of Paul Krovik, a property developer in America's Midwest, who "overstretched and overspent and overpaid" with his housing project and is now not only bitter but vengeful.
Tolstoy's misguided hero is crushed by his dream (and as he is buried the story's witty answer to its titular question is "Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed"). Krovik is a fighter and stays alive, but rather than retreat from his ruin, he holes himself up in a self-constructed bunker beneath the house he lost in a foreclosure sale, and from there proceeds to terrorise the new owners - or "intruders". What follows is a disturbing and ingenious literary thriller that keeps us gripped and thinking.
As with Absolution, Flanery's slickly assured debut, Fallen Land flits from past to present and is told from the perspective of more than one character. At the beginning, Krovik is in a high-security prison, for what, we don't know. He is visited by Louise Washington, in Krovik's eyes a friend and former neighbour. Flanery then branches off and sets the bulk of the novel in the past, returning only to the present for the novel's coda. The past, then, explores Krovik's crime; the present reveals his fate.
The past in Fallen Land is peopled by three groups of characters. Krovik is a man who, after the failure of his business, has lost everything, including, it would appear, his sanity. His neighbours have sued him for shoddy, half-finished work, debt collectors want his head, and his wife has departed with his children and taken out a restraining order. He vows to get his children back and to finish building the model community he started - "a rational utopia where neighbours look after one another without recourse to the state". For the moment, though, he must remain alone in his bunker and accept that he has created "something closer to a landscape of nightmare".
Louise, it transpires, was his neighbour but never his friend. In her lyrical, first-person accounts we learn the land is "my people's promised land" and has been in her family for generations - her great-grandparents "born in bonds" and her sharecropping grandparents, who inherited the land from a white landowner, in freedom. But Louise has had to sell to Krovik to survive. Now she lives on the land as an "outlaw", appalled at "brute pillager" Krovik and his tree massacres, impervious to taunts of "witch" from cruel children, and forever connected to the land's "secret, sliding ways".
The last strand is that of the Noailles family, who swap city life in Boston for the suburbs of Dolores Woods and, more specifically, Krovik's house. Nathaniel and Julia try to settle in, but their son Copley insists that he has seen a fourth person in the basement and heard him prowling the house at night.
He is ignored, his claims dismissed as the fantasies of a feverishly overwrought mind. When a sinister phase begins in which furniture is rearranged and property damaged, Copley is blamed and becomes a worry, a child with behavioural problems. Louise is drafted in as his teacher-governess and takes his side when he pleads innocent to each fresh wave of destruction.
However, Nathaniel's patience has a limit and one day he reaches it. In a tense, carefully controlled showdown, an unhinged Nathaniel confronts his son in the woods, unaware that he is observed by Krovik with his rifle, also at the end of his tether.
The rage that until now had simmered within the confines of a house reaches its flashpoint and explodes outdoors, on the land, the threshold to both men's brave new worlds.
Flanery guides us over the rough terrain of his characters' lives, expertly delineating cause and effect and blurring madness and reason. We get deeper forays into the past with help from illuminating flashbacks. Louise muses on the tough hand-to-mouth existence of farm life, being constantly at the mercy of harvests, before moving on to ruminate with fragile poignancy on her husband's death.
With Krovik and Nathaniel, Flanery's approach is different. Krovik begins the novel unbalanced, Nathaniel ends up that way, and Flanery chooses to sow their pasts with seeds of their future destruction. Krovik's father was a gung-ho gun-nut who taught him to hunt and spurned him for choosing a career in architecture over the military. His mother admitted her son was always angry, particularly when it came to sharing his toy bricks. "You used to say, 'anybody who touches my bricks I'll butcher 'em'." Nathaniel is abused by his father and made to feel worthless. This is a signposting technique, one that shepherds the reader, warns him of what lies ahead, and yet Flanery manages to be extremely subtle. He comes unstuck only once: Nathaniel's unease about buying a foreclosed house, finding it "unethical" and "bad karma", is a little too portentous for its own good.
Fallen Land is fairly long, weighing in at more than 400 pages, and Flanery could have benefitted from trimming some of his descriptions. There is an awful lot of landscaping detail and a finicking devotion towards all things architectural, right down to finials and verge boards, which is redolent of John Updike at his most excessive. And spelling out that Dolores Woods is "the dolorous forest of infinite sorrow" indicates Flanery's lack of faith in his readers' ability to spot a pun.
But these are tiny smuts that barely taint his novel. It is long but by the same token it is capacious, crammed with a wealth of insight and incident, moments of wonder and gloriously heightened emotion. Intercut with the Krovik-Louise-Nathaniel accounts are two interesting standalone sections: a warts-and-all document called A Brief Analysis of My Present State of Mind in which Julia seeks to map and make sense of her troubled thoughts; plus a diary-style plotting of Copley's day, which takes in his bullying at school and the fears that brew in his own house. Disparate characters' lives interlock like the branches of the novel's many trees.
Flanery builds layer upon layer, sliding present over past, levelling one chequered character history upon another, never completely effacing the ghosts of previous generations or myths, with the result that the novel resembles some kind of magical palimpsest. Interspersed among all this are passages of mesmerising prose: "Standing here now, there's a different breed of silence, thinner and less elastic, taut but worn-sounding, liable to snap from the hum of not one but 21 houses, all of them machines rather than buildings, idling and running, gearing up and shifting, opening and closing, rotating and hammering, sapping the strength from the world: the life-giving, life-taking spark."
Fallen Land is a masterful account of the fall of men. Flanery skilfully steers our emotions - one minute Krovik is a pitiable underdog who overreached, the next a pathetic aggressor we condemn - and convincingly depicts a psychological war of attrition. Things go bump in the night and keep us rapt but the real tension is to be found with the repercussions and soul-searching on show in the cold light of day. In a 2012 interview with The Millions, Flanery revealed his second book would be about "the uncanny, the unhomely home, surveillance, and the complications, costs, and elusiveness of the American dream". It is not every young author who takes on the American dream; certainly not every young author should. But Flanery proved he had great potential in the acclaimed Absolution and now, with Fallen Land, he demonstrates that in his chosen realm of fiction he is capable of anything.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.