Book Review: The Land of Steady Habits
By Ted Thompson
Little, Brown, 2014
At one point in Ted Thompson’s quietly impressive debut novel The Land of Steady Habits, we’re told that “there was nothing worse than arriving late to a party whose jokes you didn’t understand,” and the book’s readers may feel something similar when it comes to Thompson himself. If you turn from Keith Hayes’ delightfully suggestive dust jacket cover to the back flap, you find a short description of our author that reads like nothing so much as an inside joke in the writing world:
Ted Thompson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship. His work has appeared in Tin House and Best New American Voices, among other publications. He was born in Connecticut and lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
And the accompanying photo doesn’t help: there’s the movie star good looks, the ridiculously ostentatious Clark Kent glasses, the inevitable hint of plaid … it’s Justin Cronin’s younger brother, ready at any moment to say something pretentious or shriek something entitled to table-help at Smorgasburg. The combination of smirk and bio-note makes Thompson himself feel like an inside joke, an android mocked up from all the most commonly lampooned elements of the modern young writer of so-called literary fiction: they’ll be workshop-trained, they’ll be Brooklyn hipsters, they’ll have punchably smug faces.
One of the other elements in that collage is that their books will be insufferable, as full of navel-gazing as the “Rabbit” novels of John Updike and as devoid of literary talent as the “Bech” books of John Updike. Fortunately, The Land of Steady Habits largely avoids this element. It’s sensitively, insightfully written, an assured and extremely promising first novel.
The setting – the business-class corridor between affluent coastal Connecticut and the business district of Manhattan – is extremely familiar (in infamous workshop parlance, Thompson has most certainly written what he knows), and the characters are familiar too: the materially comfortable, spiritually dissatisfied denizens of gated bedroom communities – those denizens and their twenty- and thirty-something children, most of them doped to the gills on alcohol and various prescription pharmaceuticals.
The main story centers on newly midlife-crisised Anders, his stately, intelligent wife Helene, and their sons, good-willed Tommy and charismatic, deceitful Preston, who’s by far the book’s most interesting character (and, one can only hope, a close analog of Thompson himself, in pre-Greenpoint, pre-microbrewed days). Anders maintains a prickly, ambiguous relationship with his sons:
When his boys were teenagers, Anders had learned that all intimate conversations between them would soon putter into a fog of stoicism, and so he always framed discussions within a task so every interaction would have a function – hand me that hammer, a little to the left, stack those over there – and the moments they shared would never dissolve into silence.
Helene, divorced from Anders after decades of marriage, off-balancedly grateful to him for his support during her bout with breast cancer, and now living with Donald (with whom, pre-divorce, she’d embarked on an affair that’s described by Thompson with amazing, unaffected honesty as he unfolds it), has more guardedly optimistic hopes about her sons, especially Preston. And when Anders, in the wake of the divorce, begins to drift from his life’s well-worn ruts (in drift-channels well-marked by John Cheever, who’s such an obvious literary antecedent of Thompson’s that it almost feels redundant to mention him), the novel follows his hapless questing with just as much attention as it devotes to the new chapters in Helene’s life.
Secondary characters are the traditional Achilles heel of first novels, but this, too, Thompson largely avoids. Many of the bourbon-swilling peers of Anders and Helene are caricatures, true, but their children often achieve a memorable lived-in feeling, such as Charlie, the disaffected son of clueless Sophie Ashby, who’s creating a graphic novel about Laika, the dog sent into space by the early Soviet space program. Charlie quotes the lead scientist of that program, who mournfully said, “Nothing that we learned on that mission could justify the loss of that beautiful animal” – or, as Charlie dolefully tries to explain to his clueless mother, “It’s about being exploited by the people who are supposed to protect you.”
Drugs and various states of intoxication feature prominently in the book, sometimes troublingly, as in one passage in which Anders’ old friend Larry sketches out the atmosphere of good drinking that feels entirely author-endorsed:
There were all different kinds of inebriation, Larry insisted. There was the sort of buzz you got from a lunchtime sip or two, after which you squinted your way back into the world feeling joyful and empty, and there was the sort of sniveling drunk you descended into on the beach in winter when you were feeling sorry for yourself and downing all your friend’s stolen minibar bottles. But if you could push past that, there was a happiness waiting to be reached that was worth all the trouble – a few healthy pulls of Cuervo with the war windows down as you careened past the twinkly mansions along the sound and you became invincible.
Perhaps it’s merely prudish for a reader to point out that the golden, invincible feeling Larry is extolling at the end of that passage can otherwise be described as “driving drunk at high speed in a residential neighborhood.” Since Larry isn’t otherwise portrayed as a monster, passages like that, to put it mildly, pause the reading.
Alcohol also fuels some of the book’s best scenes, however, including a very assured scene at the book’s conclusion, in which Preston gets drunk by the train tracks bordering a beige expanse of marsh and reflects on his life:
It was curious that he was still drawn here, that he still bothered to go off in private to do a shameful thing, that he still felt shame at all. He was tired of needing to see himself as a good guy who had merely been sidetracked when the clearest evidence to the contrary was propped between his knees in front of him. He was tired of needing, but more than that, he was tired of pretending he didn’t need. The worst part – the exhausting, grueling part that ended up making him feel worse about himself than any credit card number he had stolen from his parents – was the amount of lying it took these days to sustain the general impression that he could take care of himself.
The Land of Steady Habits gives readers an unblinking look at a cold family’s halting and groping dissolution. It makes for an extremely satisfying read. Carpers might call that read derivative, but no matter: if a novel this strong can be called paint-by-numbers, that’s good news for the genre.