Book review: In his latest novel, Jeffrey Lewis tackles some very big questions

Jeffrey Lewis’s 2018 “Bealport: A Novel of a Town” told the story of a shoe factory in a working-class Maine town, the private equity firm that buys it, and the effect the sale has on everyone involved. It didn’t lack ambition: Lewis used the book to wrestle with weighty themes, including class, the changing role of labor and the slow decay of small one-industry towns. A similar elegiac tone is at work in his new book, “Land of Cockaigne,” but here the structure is more ambitious – as are Lewis’s ambitions.

Although a slim novel, its themes are even weightier than its predecessor. Lewis, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Castine, Maine, is again addressing the impact that the very wealthy can have on their communities, but he’s factored in plenty of criticism of insularity and reactionary politics. At the center of the novel are Walter Rath and Catherine “Charley” Gray, a well-off couple with an adult son who have called the town of Sneeds Harbor home for years.

Sneeds Harbor is on the coast; early in the book, there’s a reference to “a Bar Harbor lawyer,” which offers a general sense of place. It’s also set in the very recent past – an early chapter sets the action in the fall of 2016, and the novel’s second half includes several characters’ reactions to then-governor Paul LePage’s controversial comments about “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie , Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home.” (This includes a short play criticizing LePage’s comments. Sticking a play in the middle of a novel sounds odd, but makes a lot more sense in the context of the narrative.)

Soon enough, tragedy strikes Walter and Catherine. Their son, Stephen, who lived in the Bronx, dies in a carjacking. Lewis’s prose is lyrical even as it describes something terrible: “On the news programs, too, was the irony of it all, that the victim of the carjack gone tragically wrong was in the Bronx to keep kids out of jail.”

In the aftermath of Stephen’s death, his girlfriend, Sharon, remains in Walter and Catherine’s life. Eventually, Walter has the idea to bring some of the kids that Stephen had worked with to rural Maine for a few weeks – a plan that many residents of Sneeds Harbor eye skeptically, eventually revealing the insular and even racist side of several characters.

Some characters – like Donnie, a man who has worked for Walter and Catherine for years – are portrayed as morally conflicted. Others, like Rine – “one of those identified by Doris Bunting as never having been farther than Bangor and he was all in all proud of it” – began uttering racist and anti-Semitic phrases.

Over time, Lewis’s novel – his eighth – traces the community slowly turning on itself. “Charley never went to the selectmen’s meetings because they were tedious and long and she didn’t wish to be disappointed in the town she tried so hard to love, but she went to this one,” he writes. Lewis also features chapters from the perspective of several of the young Bronx men who travel there – and who put some of Walter and Catherine’s more well-intentioned but cringeworthy actions in context.

It’s clear relatively early that things will not go according to plan. The way in which they go awry makes for one of the book’s more muted sections; Lewis wisely keeps “Land of Cockaigne” from ever boiling over into melodrama.

Which isn’t to say that tragedy is absent. Lewis provides an explanation of the title early in the novel. “It was the old medieval peasants’ dream, of chops for breakfast every morning and the skies raining sweet wine and the fish not needing to be caught because they jumped out of the water and landed in the net,” Lewis writes. (The Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting of the same name is also a useful point of comparison.) But Walter’s desire, in his grief, to follow the spirit, if not the letter, of his son’s work ignores the impossibility of doing so. He seems to have forgotten that the meaning of “utopia” is, literally, “no place.”

It’s not until the very end of the novel that Lewis tells the reader exactly how much money Walter and Catherine have amassed; the matter-of-fact way in which this information is revealed is dizzying. And it puts everything we’ve just read into a different context, further complicating the already dense web of themes Lewis navigates in the novel. “Land of Cockaigne” does not dispense easy answers – although, as its plot forcefully reveals, we’re also long since passed the time when they would suffice.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


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