You have to give Buffalo native Gregg Easterbrook this: he aims high, very high, with "The Leading Indicators," his newest book, a novel.
He builds his story around a conceit that is, when you stop and think about it, pretty powerful stuff. It is about the decline of Empire. Put more simply, it is about what normal people like you and me – or people perhaps slightly better than you and me, with better wardrobes and nicer cars, cleaner maybe, and more used to luxury – do when the world around them crumbles and the sand on which they have built their luxury McMansions washes away. (To mix our metaphorical millennia for a moment.)
Easterbrook, who was born in Western New York in 1953 to parents who were Canadians by birth, has – maybe as a result, maybe not – a perspective on life in modern America that is that of both an insider and an outsider. That works to his advantage in this book, which calls itself a novel but which is really more of a fable, or parable.
Here is the situation of the story: Margo and Tom Helot are well-to-do Americans living the well-heeled suburban lives that many of their generation and paycheck-level have attained, complete with open-plan kitchen, built-in latte maker, nice cars and polite kids.
"The Helot household," we read, "rested on a crest of tasteful affluence. Five-bedroom home fully redecorated. Two delightful children with good grades. His-and-hers fancy cars in the drive – Margo drove a Lexus, described by the automotive press as an ‘entry-level luxury' product. Day after day the driver [of a package delivery truck] brought this house packages from the kinds of places from which all Americans wished they were receiving packages: Williams-Sonoma, Bergdorf Goodman, Under Armour, Pfaelzer Brothers, L.L. Bean, Villeroy & Boch."
That shimmering vision of success is undercut in the novel's opening passages, ?when Easterbrook has a FedEx truck delivering to the Helot household crash into a UPS truck which is also in the driveway. The jarring accident telegraphs to the reader what the rest of the novel will attempt to do: turn this idyllic vision of effortless affluence on its head.
The book is being touted on its cover and on Easterbrook's own website with a blurb from Arianna Huffington, calling "The Leading Indicators" the "first great novel of the Great Recession."
This book is not that – not great, and not the first book about the recession we seem trapped endlessly within. (Although the title is admittedly fabulous. Easterbrook reveals in the acknowledgements at the back of the book that the title was suggested to him 10 years ago as a nonfiction book on economics.) "The Leading Indicators" contains too many diversions and distractions from its main theme and its central concept; Easterbrook writes at length about waitressing and tipping and package delivery systems and labor costs and health insurance and other signs of the spoiled nature of privileged Americans, and although he is pithy and at times quite funny on these subjects, they feel like sidetracks here, in a book that is thinly sliced to begin with (wide margins, large font sizes and generous spacing all add up to a read of a few hours' time).
Easterbrook's writing style is pithy and elliptical, and he is good at the one-liner. Take this one: "All that effort to attain the nice car, and the world refused to get out of your way." Or this: "Nicole had amusement value; she was trying hard to carry herself as a trophy wife so that she did not get replaced by an actual trophy wife." Or this: "Millions of Americans were spending as if tomorrow would never come. Tomorrow had a way of coming."
Easterbrook's book is, ultimately, a quick, breezy read for those fascinated by what the neighbors in the nice house down the block may, or may not, be doing.
And it's always nice to read a novel that contains a shout-out about Buffalo's great seasonal weather. You'll find it here on Page 41.
Be forewarned: The novel ends with a surprise, and not a pleasant one.
Oh well. As Easterbrook might say, all is fair in love and war – and high-end real estate.
Charity Vogel is a News staff reporter and manager of the News' Book Club.
The Leading Indicators
By Gregg Easterbrook
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press208 pages, $25