The New England Paradox
I lived in New England for about six years, and during that time I came to understand that poverty as intense as Appalachia’s exists there. It exists side by side with some of the only old money in America: while I lived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a gang shooting took place in the backyard of a massive Colonial home with wood floors and crown molding. The region is so stuffed with fine colleges that a bachelor’s degree is no mark of employability, despite debt in the six digits to attain it. One of my coworkers at a Domino’s claimed she had narcolepsy, when what she really had was heroin.
Such poverty, such dysfunction, occurs even in Bernie Sanders’ Vermont, and Melanie Finn, in The Underneath, is unafraid to look it right in the eye, to show it existing beneath the veneer of rural beauty. The book is divided into three unequal portions by its narrators: Kay, a semi-housewife and summer renter, narrates both the present and her terrifying past adventures as a journalist in Africa, while Ben, a local logger and drug dealer, narrates his sideways endeavors to break free of his car-wreck life. Inevitably, the two narrators meet, although only for small portions of the plot in which both are tangled up.
This book has an overabundance of plot – or really, an overabundance of memorable characters who take numerous actions – which makes it difficult to summarize. In essence, Kay’s marriage is breaking up, and Ben has located his redemption in the son of a junkie mother. After Kay seeks him out, in investigating her rental house’s owner, Ben enters her life largely as a distraction from her domestic struggles – first as an acquaintance, then as a lover. They wrestle with each other for information that Kay wants, and Ben has, but neither of them understands.
There’s more, a lot more. Kay’s children, demonic Freya and gentle Tom. Ammon, the caretaker of the house Kay is renting, who traps coyotes (!) on the property and cannot be persuaded to stop. Ben running heroin into Canada inside hollow logs. Murder. Fraud. Words written in hidden rooms. And the entire backstory of Kay in Africa, which places an intriguing weight on the present story.
The tense push and pull between Kay’s privileged position and the dire poverty and drug problems of the community around her has additional dimensions thanks to history. She understands poverty, cruel misfortune, life-or-death moments played out regularly, from the child soldiering and war crimes she has covered in Africa:
It’s a desperate response to fear, the same force that sent us scurrying to our hotel rooms with bottles of tequila and condoms—the relentless irony of being human: death and life, horror and pleasure, linked together like little plastic beads.
However, in rural Vermont, Kay still behaves a little like a foolish stranger. She doesn’t understand how these citizens perceive a snoop, and how fast suspicion travels in such a community. Perhaps it’s her time in Africa that makes Kay believe she’s never in any real danger, that makes her blunder around town asking questions as if no one could have a bead on her. Or perhaps it’s the fractured emotional situation in which she finds herself, with her husband gone and her children eroding her identity. This is a feminist novel, one that acknowledges both the gift and the daily grind of mothering:
These children—these interlopers—had colonized her life, infested it, altered its form so completely she had become someone else, a bloated, slow-moving host, who fed and watered and cleaned and tended and found lost shoes and endlessly, endlessly cut the crusts off the bread.
The novel’s active subtext includes Kay’s loss of access to the world of men, of action and consequence, because she has traded her career for the grind.
Another element of that subtext is Ben’s belief that if he saves Jake, a boy in crisis due to his heroin-addicted mother, he will save his own childhood. Ben’s mother, who turned tricks while Ben hid in motel bathrooms, strongly resembles Jake’s mother. Although the bargain Ben strikes with her is sick and ugly, its intended outcome is to save Jake from the life Ben endured. This bargain also forms a series of organic motivations, plot movements as deft as dance. The whole book ticks like that, with events that trigger other events not as neon signs flashing in the reader’s face, but as pockmarks in the map that swing the compass elsewhere, visible only after a direction is plotted. Although Kay is less important to Ben’s journey than he is to hers, her appearance in Vermont in this particular summer causes his life to take a drastic, fatal turn.
Ben is not a monster, unless he’s a monster created by his life’s circumstances. Against all the harm he commits in this novel, the reader must set his genuine devotion to Jake, and his deep-set desire to “make things right,” even as he’s caught up in the desperation of his surroundings. (The opioid epidemic is an important piece of this town’s puzzle.) Yet Ben’s legal profession, as a logger, leads to scenes of tree death and destruction that prove more heartbreaking than scenes of human death and destruction:
He wanted to own it, to possess this act: what a man could do to a landscape in eight hours, to the trees that had taken a hundred years to grow, that had outlasted winters and diseases and droughts and ice storms. He severed them with a blade and ground them up into little pieces.
As it moved along, breakneck and frightening and impossibly compelling, this novel reminded me of one of New England’s most famous books: Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place. That book posits that the people and the place of New England poison each other in equal measure, leading to corruption without end. I hated New England when I lived there, and when I read Peyton Place some years after I moved, it was a vindication. This book is not that. Like its older cousin, it digs into the dark intestines of human nature, particularly human nature in rural New England—where, in 2018, life is just not going well for a lot of citizens. But it also offers glimpses of redemption, hope, and at every turn, natural beauty. The Underneath is a gripping, detailed, satisfying read, a hard, unsparing look at human nature.
header image: "abandoned house - vermont 1993," rickety schorr / flickr