Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
The title of Seth Greenland’s book harks back to William Dean Howells’ 1889 New York novel of business and politics A Hazard of New Fortunes. The fortune of Greenland’s title harnesses both its meanings in a classically American equation, both luck and riches. Jay Goldstone, the novel’s lead character, was born to immense wealth – his father’s real estate empire – and those millions have grown to the point where he can own a major league basketball club (an early warning of satirical intent is given by the name of their professional home base – the Sanitary Solutions Arena).
For all his wealth, Goldstone is a man of humane and liberal outlook, not to mention an admirer from adolescence of black American culture (so not Trump, despite the parallels). He’s on top of the world, but a world about to fall apart under the pressure of dynamics beyond his control. These include, centrally, racial conflict, the machinery of the law, politics, marital disharmony and the omnipresent power of money. Plus, of course, violent death. This is the USA, after all. Such are the elements that drive plenty of novels, and Greenland tackles them confidently.
Stylistically, he has little time for that weary mantra of Creative Writing courses ‘show, don’t tell’. He freely assumes the role of omniscient author, describing the thoughts and emotions of his characters, including those of which they are not fully conscious, as well as their appearance and personal histories. He is comfortable with the free-indirect expression of their inner questionings. (Some readers may find the author’s meta-narrative needlessly explicit, repeating what can be read between the lines, especially the lines of excellent dialogue that show his screenwriting skills.) There is no third-degreeing language here, or the employment of reader-repellent ‘distancing’ devices. His is a traditional, involving kind of realist fiction, a coherent story based on a recognisable reality in the line of Howells, Dreiser and John O’Hara. Greenland names the last among his favourite writers, but also James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin, Woody Allen and Michel Houellebecq – an intriguing and significant miscellany which points to his mingling a serious state-of-the-nation novel with moments of gonzo humour.
Successfully scripting comedies before he chose to develop as a novelist, Greenland admits to being a born piss-taker: ‘there is humor to be found in most subjects, and I am by nature inclined to tease it out’. Here he is adept at humorous episodes that range from light mockery of Manhattan ladies who lunch on untouched salads to deadly bedroom farce. A telling sequence of razor-edged comedy occurs in chapter twenty-one, when Jay Goldstone’s Jewish family including his dodgy cousin Franklin, plus a black lesbian guest, gather for Seder only to find the ritual accord collapsing in vituperation as Middle East issues hijack the occasion. Philip Roth could not have done it better. And The Hazards of Good Fortune only deserts the mainstream narrative to foreground at intervals a witless chorus of sports radio presenters who trade shallow repartee and celebrity gossip while responding – not always politely – to phone calls from Joe Public. It’s the kind of parodic insert highlighting the trashy level of populist broadcasting John Dos Passos might have used in his panoramic trilogy USA.
Like Dos Passos, Greenland structures his novel by tracking the hierarchical cross-currents of US society, so inevitably race is a key factor in The Hazards of Good Fortune – in fact a major ‘hazard’. The plot hinges on the deaths of two black men at the hands of two white men, one killer a nervous young cop and the other a philanthropic billionaire. The incidents – of the kind which recently led to the Black Lives Matter protests – are separate, but as they are fed into the criminal justice system and become open to media commentary popular feeling mounts and an ambitious DA with responsibility for both cases has to make choices which will impinge on her career. Many lives are equally affected as the fallout descends over the range of characters Greenland has assembled to picture New York/America in the early twentieth century.
The Hazards of Good Fortune is set in 2012, during the Obama presidency, and one wonders if Greenland has plans to do a sandbagging job on Trump, whose time in the White House he describes as ‘a painful era where the legacy of the Civil War is being re-litigated’. The novel’s concerns are, as he asserts, more relevant than ever. Not that he is marketing a solution, though his liberal sympathies are undisguised. He certainly knows that ‘civilisation’ can be the thinnest of integuments, that people are often corrupted by the very institutions they serve in good faith, and that there is an unkind logic in racially divided societies which means that hazards lurk in unexpected places. Out of these facts he creates a richly entertaining work of fiction.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Seth Greenland, The Hazards Of Good Fortune (Europa Editions, 2018). 978-1609454623, 614 pp., paperback.