Berkley Trade
ISBN-10: 0425181561
ISBN-13: 978-0425181560
352 pages

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Set in the rural town of Penacook, New Hampshire, Merle Drown’s 2nd novel offers a voyeuristic look at the darker side of everyday life. With the aid of Down East black humor Drown draws us into a world we may find hard to face, but impossible to ignore.

“The Suburbs of Heaven” examines the gradual unraveling of Jim Hutchins, a rough-edged high school dropout, as he undergoes a personal crisis fueled by long-held resentments, betrayal and the breakdown of his family. Stricken with death of their youngest child Jim’s wife, Pauline, finds emotional and financial relief in a passive affair with his wealthy brother-in-law, Emory Holler. Alcoholic daughter, Lisa, marries an abusive deadbeat and lives at constant risk of losing her children. Oldest son, Gregory, “cagey with craziness” retreats into the woods with his gun and delusions. Meanwhile younger son, Tommy, rotates in and out of jail on various criminal charges.

Despite his seemingly endless troubles, Jim maintains a realistic outlook on his situation. “Life makes you eat thorns. Smell the roses if you can, but don’t forget you’re going to eat thorns.” However, with a panty thief terrorizing the town, looming tax debts, and a growing roster of “sworn enemies” Jim Hutchins’ meltdown is inevitable. And for readers, who will likely find themselves frustrated with this character’s pitifully submissive nature, it is a victory.

An abundance of conflict, plot twists and misguided characters move the story along at a steady clip, and multiple first-person narrators provide valuable insights into the family’s dynamic. “Suburbs” presents an uncomfortable portrait of ordinary life that transcends fiction. The Hutchins’ could be your neighbors. The panty thief could be your cousin. Though, I’d venture to say that Drown’s panty thief functions as a metaphor of stolen intimacy rather than a perversion inserted for shock value.

Well written and thoughtful, “The Suburbs of Heaven” is a story inspired by the intricacies of human love and familial bonds. Throughout, Drown maintains an authentic voice and a sympathetic eye on the absurdities and motivations of common man. The result is a masterful narrative worthy of critical analysis.

Reviewed by Joelyn Drennan
    Winter 2014