Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, review by Bruce Jacobs
Take the underwater mortgages, unemployment, drought, wildfires, crime, landslides, maxed-out credit cards and power outages that have hammered Los Angeles recently and roll them into six months, and you get a feel for the desolation of Joe McGinniss Jr.'s second novel (after The Delivery Man). Carousel Court is the story of a young Boston family's search for the California dream at just the wrong time. Nick and Phoebe Maguire pack up their two-year-old son, Jackson, and meager belongings to drive their Subaru cross-country for Nick's new job with a boutique L.A. film production company, allowing some time off for Phoebe to be with Jackson. With their marriage on shaky ground after her affair with the uber-rich boss at her previous job, and a car accident that nearly killed Jackson, Nick and Phoebe have a plan: "secure an investment property to upgrade, flip for enough profit to secure their future." Acting quickly, they buy a ranch house on the suburban cul-de-sac Carousel Court. With an interest-only, zero-down, 125% renovation mortgage, they do the whole California remodel thing: "Granite countertops, double-ascending stairways.... And the pool: in-ground free-form hourglass with ice-blue Quartzon rendering, natural stone waterfall with solar heating."
Then comes the Great Recession. Nick's hip new job falls apart, and Phoebe starts selling pharmaceuticals for GSK and living on Klonopin to take the edge off. Desperate, Nick takes a job trashing out and painting foreclosed homes so banks can resell them--what his boss calls "clean 'em and green 'em." Working opposite shifts, they rely on their immigrant "viet nanny" neighbor to care for Jackson. The cracks in their marriage widen. Phoebe takes up again with her old boss via racy text messages and an occasional hotel rendezvous when he visits L.A. Nick hatches a Craigslist scam to rent the empty foreclosed homes he has cleaned. Wildfires smolder in the hills above Carousel Court, coyotes roam the abandoned houses in the neighborhood--some California fairy tale.
McGinniss writes with a keen feel for the contemporary zeitgeist, but he also might justly lay claim to being the ascending fictional Prince of Darkness. The Delivery Man was about a dangerous teen prostitution ring set amid the glitter of Sin City--a sort of Less Than Zero meets Leaving Las Vegas. His characters in Carousel Court move in a brutal world of broken personal connections, social unrest and financial desperation. Their world is sadly a modern one with which readers are all too familiar--talking by text, hustling to make ends meet, dodging extremes of weather, looking for that lost American Dream. Yet McGinniss opens a window of hope as Nick and Phoebe survive the mess they make of their lives and put their faith in Jackson. The novel ends with them watching him run laughing circles at daycare: "the beginning of something."
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.