Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss Jr.
John Cheever was a surrealist but I think the suburbs made him crazy which allowed him to write they way he did. Raymond Carver presented a sculpted world littered with chiseled drunks, sloppy whores, baby killers, lovesick lovers, unwashed truckers, and belligerent bakers – never mind the loners down to their last bone marrow transplant. I re-read Carver’s Vitamins whenever I get down in the mouth about my fiction and that fills me with hope. I dare add, A.M. Homes is an heir to these suburban chestnuts, a daughter born out the bonfire they created.
I refuse to overlook Richard Yates in this conversation. You don’t read him, because he’s already read you. Disturbing the Peace is a fever dream and Revolutionary Road is one of the best books I have ever read. I try not to think in absolutes, but that one is hard to argue. James Wood certainly makes a case for arguing it (he likes to hear himself talk, smart guy, but saying Revolutionary Road is a great book is like telling me Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream from Friendly’s is great, no kidding!), in his essay about Richard Yates in The Fun Stuff.
What James Wood specifically points to when it comes to Richard Yates is what feels like a reversal by Joe McGinnis Jr., which is prominently on display in his blistering new novel Carousel Court. Yates showcases masculinity, men who work, provide, and the women at home with kids and laundry, which are Yatesian, tenants.
The modern reversal of Revolutionary Road is Carousel Court, which delivers a blistering takedown of suburban life right now. Look back a few years to see what you can find in the debris of the housing crash. You will muddy your shoes in a trail of tears, maxed out credit cards, and debt collectors from the Sunshine Collection Agency. This isn’t The Big Short, white guys getting rich on the spoils of 2008; it is white privilege getting its rump spanked by the anxieties of the day. Like Cheever’s Shady Hill, Joe McGinniss Jr. provides the reader with a slick-as-deer guts-narrative and presents what is essentially two cowboys roaming the post apocalyptic landscape of Right-Now-America.
Phoebe and Nick Maguire and their adorable son Jackson are living on the edge of suffocating debt and in the shambles of the American dream. Shambles is actually a poor choice of words. Anal fissure is acurate. The reversal I speak of is right here; after nearly accidentally killing Jackson, Phoebe resets in California with a job hawking pharmaceuticals. While in the throws of this novel I had blood drawn at my doctors office and saw what I thought was the real Phoebe strut in, equally as gorgeous as the fictional version I was reading, dressed in high heels, Prada whatever’s, and an icy “I’m-just-here-to-check-samples” look in her eyes. Phoebe drives for miles all over and everywhere but basically goes nowhere. When she gets to a doctors office to sell, they just want her to take her clothes off because she is that good looking. Doctor’s text her “those kind of pictures” to get her to come back – but sadly she isn’t meeting her numbers for her boss which creates prickly beads of sweat on her horizon.
Meanwhile in the story running parallel, her husband Nick is realizing the 99 Homes version of a career option as he goes from one foreclosed house to another to clean it up and get it ready to re-sell. But wait. He has an idea, “why don’t I rent these to people looking for homes,” (renters have less than good credit) and presto just like that he has a string of renters and all this mo-ney. He permits month-to-month renters and realizes all too quickly that he isn’t the first guy to think of this. “Trouble” is coming to town, and it isn’t happy. When everyone is ripping off his or her neighbor it seems every honest man has a hand in your pocket. This is where a responsible adult pulls the nose up. Nick and Phoebe have no desire for something that boring.
Phoebe has a friend who is a “master of the universe” character and he lives in the fine lines of a text message, and from time to time beds her, hard. He only goes by JW, but is offering Phoebe a way out, all she has to do is leave Nick and he will allow Jackson to come along. But like the Interpol song goes, “there’s no I in threesome.”
Yates would be proud of this book; in the sense that it flips the scenario he created. Destroy the suburbs, and you will be free. These suburbs are dystopian, and a drug addled woman pretending to be a housewife is running the narrative. Did I forget to tell you Phoebe is super anxious about not making enough money? She still wants the all holy triad of house, husband and kid, (wait, she has that, but like everyone else she is underwater) the components of the American Dream. She loves her mood stabilizers and the days are smeared within that pharmaceutical prism. It’s the reason she sells what she sells. Nick gave up on his dream, and Phoebe can never quite get her hands around hers. This book reminds me of A Little Life, in that it’s sad, but the kind of sad that allows you to say, “I’m so glad this isn’t me,” unless of course it is.
Nick and Phoebe went to California for the modern day gold rush, and were left broke, sticky and confused. A Little Life is an apt comparison because of the empathy factor – and no good come from a bad case of the “I wants”, which plague Nick and have infested Phoebe. They bought a house with the understanding that they would make millions 9 to 5, and then it turned out they were working in the zirconium mines of the great west.
What McGinniss Jr. does so well with this story is keep the plates spinning for so long, quickly and without breaking a sweat. I direct you to page 287/ Chapter 72, where JW and Phoebe are tugging a recalcitrant piece of meat from the teeth of the narrative, and are arguing over whether or not she should leave Nick and go to NYC where she will be a kept woman (JW reminds her again that Jackson can come, he is so generous). As her mind wraps around this idea, upper west east mobile, and then JW urges that she might have to get a job in retail to keep her head above water.
Wait, he’s not paying for everything? She both loathes the idea and uses it as a fantasy. (Note to Phoebe, stay with your husband or leave him but don’t get yourself franchised.) Phoebe entertains this idea, like the Paris dream in Revolutionary Road, both are preposterous, and the only thing missing from Carousel Court is a fringe character like the Yates masterstroke of John Giving’s coming in to get her shut of the idea, the “honesty” is implied in JW’s response, so if you want to argue this point with, say, James Wood (I’m offering you to argue with him, I would never…), you could.
Carousel Court is a different novel than Revolutionary Road, at least stylistically but thematically it’s an upgrade on the whorehouse odor, which wafts off the carcass of the American middle class 1950’s. Yates writes that April Wheeler is set to go to Paris and work as a secretary leaving Frank Wheeler time to think and dream. They of course don’t know that at the outset of this idea April will get pregnant (Frank knew how this would end the dream and allow him to keep killing the dream they were in.) and then die from a botched abortion. Revolutionary Road is about gender, the suburbs and the prison sentence that Frank endures in corporate New York City. Carousel Court is inspired by Yates, but there would be a Joe McGinniss Jr. without Yates. All this to say I dare you to put Carousel Court down after you open it and read the badass opening line, “Dream Extreme…” and the diamond sharp prose that follows.
Jason Rice has worked in the book industry for 15 years, first at Barnes & Noble then as an inside sales representative at Bookazine, selling to independents bookstores. Currently he is the Eastern Region Manager for Baker & Taylor where he works with hundreds of independent bookstores up and down the east coast. He is the founding editor of the blog Three Guys One Book. Jason’s short stories have appeared in print and online across the country. He also has a story in ‘Hint Fiction; an Anthology of stories in 25 words or fewer’, published by W.W. Norton in 2010. His photographs appear with alarming regularity on this site, and live forever here: tomcrownkills.com.