Greg Marnier in his 30’s finds himself at loose ends. He has been in Wales teaching history classes as an adjunct during the last few years but has moved back home to Baton Rouge and can’t find a job. He is an overthinker, who seems generally clueless and inert throughout the novel.
Marny, as his friends call him, went to Yale with Robert James, who has made a fortune and now claims to want to do some good. It’s 2011, and property is cheap in deserted Detroit. Robert wants to buy a large number of houses and sell them to people who want to change their lives, fix up the houses, and create communities, thereby forcing urban renewal. Marny decides he’s in.
This idea is sort of interesting, but Marny right away struck me as deficient in something. For example, he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with Robert’s company having tried to force some of the original occupants in the five neighborhoods, most of whom are black, out of their houses, to displace them with newcomers who are mostly white. Marny makes tentative friends with an angry black Detroit native named Nolan, but when his friend Tony won’t let his small child play with Nolan’s small child because Tony is a racist, he says nothing and continues to be friends with both.
Marny half-heartedly pursues a black schoolteacher named Gloria romantically and then doesn’t seem to know what to do with her once he’s got her. But like all the conversations in this novel, their discussions of race seem strangely unfinished and unsatisfying.
In general, Markovits’s handling of the book’s themes of racism and gentrification seems deficient and naïve. Nothing much happens for a long time except an exhaustive retelling of Marny’s day-to-day life until there’s a series of events and a trial that change everything.
Markovits has a background in magazine writing, which I wouldn’t mention if it didn’t affect the novel. Just like in a magazine feature, Marny describes each character as he or she comes into the story and provides a short background. This is not an organic outgrowth of the novel, where it is more usual to find out about a character’s background through a conversation or some other organic construct (research on the part of another character, for example) unless the novel is omnisciently narrated. It seems very artificial in fiction as it does not in a magazine article, and frankly, some of the characters seem stereotypical. There are also a lot of them, as there are a lot of those unsatisfying conversations, many of which have little to do with the story.
I think that the subject matter of this novel is important, but I don’t think Markovits is the person to handle it, at least not judging by this book. Including its clumsy title (which seems to be a thing these days), his novel was not one of my favorites from my James Tait Black project.