Soulless cityAs Vladimir Nabokov once remarked, a child to whom you read a story might ask: Is it true? And if not, the child would demand a true one. If somebody told you that he saw a spaceship with a little green operator inside, Nabokov allowed, you would want to know if it were true or not, because the fact of its being true would be of practical importance to you. “But do not ask whether a poem or a novel is true,” he continued. “Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature.”
Fred G. Leebron, the author of Six Figures, is, of all things, a teacher of creative writing at a Pennsylvania college, and it may please him to know that many people at his recent reading in Raleigh were asking themselves of his new book: Is it true? The story is obviously fiction, but its mise en scene is very real–Charlotte, N.C.–and the contemporary reading audience, obsessed as it is with verisimilitude, would like nothing more than to know if the Charlotte of Leebron’s novel (suddenly our Charlotte, now that a writer from PA has swooped in to make use of it) is the real Charlotte. Or put in the novel’s terms: Is being forced to live in Charlotte enough to drive one to murder? While Nabokov may find that question irrelevant (and former residents may find the answer obvious), Triangle residents who have noted their environment’s increasing resemblance to Charlotte can be forgiven for wanting to ask of Leebron’s portrait: Is it true?
In Six Figures, the author moves Warner Lutz and his wife, young daughter and infant son from Boston to Charlotte, where Lutz takes on the directorship of a nonprofit organization called MORE (Metrolina Organization for Resource Exchange). Lutz’s reputation as a turnaround artist who’s raised millions for nonprofits in San Francisco and Boston impresses the board of the free-spending organization, which has hired him to help erase their annual operating deficit. The fact that MORE’s mission in the Charlotte community remains fuzzy to Warner doesn’t much trouble him–he’s been hired primarily to raise money, not to determine organizational goals.
But Warner’s middling income, even when added to what his wife earns working for an art gallery, is barely enough in this Southern boomtown to afford his family a midsized condo, with little left over to help replace their ailing Honda. Surrounded as he is by Range Rovers, country clubs, private schools, and the monolithic new-money homes of Southpark and the Arboretum, Warner can’t help but want more. He has recently hit middle age. He’s uncomfortable with fatherhood. He’s uncertain of his love for his wife, who complains that he ignores her and is unconcerned with her problems. And his work for nonprofits has tainted his résumé and limited his career options: Most for-profit companies are convinced that anyone who has worked long in the nonprofit sector isn’t interested in making money. His envy rising with every uptick of the stock market and his patience running low, Warner Lutz has become an embryonic angry white male. It won’t take much, one senses, to complete the transformation.
When the probationary period for Warner’s job is extended another six months because of a costly mistake made by his predecessor, the novel at last takes the turn we’ve been prepared for. An unseen assailant viciously attacks Warner’s wife in the art gallery, and because robbery doesn’t seem to have been a motive–and because he and his wife have been arguing–Warner is fingered as the prime suspect. (I’m not giving away plot here–the book jacket tells us as much.) While his comatose wife languishes in a hospital, a blizzard of suspicion and recrimination buffets Warner, from both his family and from the community.
Leebron has gotten one thing right in this novel: The contemporary way of understanding “evil” is as an impersonal force, manifesting itself in institutions and systems. The “New South” of Six Figures, as represented by Charlotte, is simply a paved-over version of the “Old South,” and skeletons lie underneath the concrete. It’s a place where the promise of violence is omnipresent, where the blood of past transgressions has seeped into the brickwork and foundations of modern-day homes and office towers.
Warner Lutz inhabits Charlotte, N.C., much as Jack Torrance inhabits the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both places create an environment capable of tweaking a susceptible personality. (The South, Warner laments, is just too damn hot.) Warner Lutz is susceptible–we are told early of his negativism, which he admits is perhaps “devolving through envy into insanity.” His wife and mother even supply us with minor incidences of angry outbursts in his past. All that it will take to push this frustrated and unfulfilled character over the edge is a bit of isolation. Jack Torrance finds isolation in a snowbound hotel. Warner Lutz finds it in the “too new and concrete and bland” landscape of a modern Southern city that concerns itself only with getting and spending.
The second half of the novel revolves around the reactions of the relatives who come to Charlotte to help care for the Lutz children while their mother is in the hospital and their father is under suspicion for attempted murder. Here the novel becomes especially tedious, as it asks the reader to care about such questions as “Did he do it?” and “Could he have done it?” Leebron wants to leave the question of culpability tantalizingly open for some reason, as if ambiguity were interesting for its own sake. But since the author never supplies any alternative suspects (which would be boringly necessary in order for the pulp mystery readers in his audience to follow this thread of suspicion and doubt), the only possible conclusion is that yes, indeed, Warner clobbered his own wife with a hammer. The novel never admits this (the police have little evidence), and neither does Mrs. Lutz, nor Warner to himself. The banal point of this alleged uncertainty, as blankly stated in the novel, is that we can “never really know anyone,” not even ourselves–and not even if that someone is an egotist with a history of violence and angry outbursts. (For myself, I would say that this is a personality one could pin down with some degree of accuracy.)
This gives a recovered Mrs. Lutz reason enough to soldier on, the masochist in her warming to the narcissist in her hubby, proving that, at least in Six Figures‘ strange moral universe, here is the perfect formula for a successful relationship. At this point in the story, the problem with the novel becomes apparent as a failure of style. Leebron has gone for a kind of realism–carefully building a believable portrait of a modern Southern city and detailing the minutiae of middle-class family life–which encourages readers to question the author’s more dubious choices. (Why, for instance, would a woman of reasonable intelligence stay with this man and why would she work so hard to convince herself that he’s an OK guy?) We find ourselves quarreling with the logic of a novel’s plot points only when it fails to fully inhabit the landscape of literature. This problem could have been overcome with a more expressionistic style, which would have been more evocative of an altered state. As it is, Leebron’s soulless Southern city, in all its concrete blandness, sits by idly, observing but not participating in Warner Lutz’s meltdown.
Ultimately, Six Figures asks readers to inquire not about the nature of evil and whether it can manifest itself in the inhuman terrain of the city and in the money-minded culture of the new capitalist economy; nor does it allow us to seriously consider how much responsibility individuals bear in the creation of their own environments–these questions are unceremoniously dropped. But rather the novel seems most concerned with asking: What will happen to the Lutzes? (That dull couple? I think they moved to Pennsylvania … ) This leaves us only with the novel’s disturbing conclusion, which suggests that families who live in denial together stay together, and that an effective way to consolidate a failing relationship might be with an act of violence. Only a child would ask whether this is true or not.