Last week I found "Good Neighbors", a short story published in The New Yorker last June. There's been some buzz recently that Franzen's new novel, with a working title Freedom, will appear late this year; this sketch is rumored to figure into it.
Like The Corrections, "Good Neighbors" is, at its heart, a tale of suburban dystopia. It opens:
"Walter and Patty Berglund were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill - the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier."
At that time,
"the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, or how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousing a drunk from your lawn furniture... There were also more contemporary questions like: What about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts O.K. politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries?..."
Patty, one of the few stay-at-home moms, is the ultimate neighborhood resource. She is "famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else." Patty remembers everyone's birthdays, often showing up at the door with a plate of cookies or "some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning."
However, there are some mysteries in Patty's past. Walter seems practically a non-entity. Problems arise with their beloved son, who eventually moves in with the neighbors. There's even more trouble when the single mom next door's boyfriend, "a goateed young backhoe operator" named Blake, moves in, cuts down the trees, and builds an addition (referred to as "the hangar") in Patty's clear view.
The reader gleans much information from conversations (that occur mostly while doing dishes) between Seth and Merrie Paulsen, another neighborhood couple. The Berglund's gradual decline is chronicled.
"...the emotions prevailing among the Ramsey Hill gentry were pity for Walter, anxiety about Patty's psychological health, and an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude at how normal their own children were - how happy to accept parental largesse, how innocently demanding of help with their homework or their college applications, how compliant in phoning in their after-school whereabouts, how divulging of their little day-to-day bruisings, how reassuringly predictable in their run-ins with sex and pot and alcohol. The ache emanating from the Berglunds' house was sui generis."
As the Berglunds spend less and less time at home, neighbors gradually lose interest. Two weeks after 9/11, a for sale sign appears in the front lawn and Walter and Patty make their way through the neighborhood saying their farewells. The story concludes with a final,very telling conversation between the Paulsens.
I love Franzen's writing style, his keen insight and slightly sarcastic humor. When his next novel finally does appear, I'll be there buying a hardcover copy the day it is released. You can read "Good Neighbors" on The New Yorker website.
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