Patrick Flanery’s ambitious second novel, Fallen Land, falls somewhere between a dystopian thriller and a social critique. Driven mad by failed ambition, a property developer builds a bunker beneath his former home and begins to terrorize the home’s new owners. Drawing connections between the housing crisis, the growth of the incarceration industry and the history of race relations dating back to the riots of 1919, Flanery manages to both provoke and enthrall in this densely plotted page-turner.
Paul Kovik, an ambitious but unskilled builder, had dreamed of creating a large housing complex on undeveloped local farmland in an unnamed locale somewhere in the Midwest. Unfortunately, he was not much of a craftsman, and was forced to declare bankruptcy several years into the project. Leaving behind a half-finished sprawl of neo-Victorian McMansions and abandoned by his wife and children, Kovik builds a bunker beneath his signature home and hides there. After the foreclosed property is sold to Julia and Nathaniel Noailles from Massachusetts, Kovik emerges at night like an angry poltergeist—rearranging furniture and frightening the Noailles’ young son, Copley. Their elderly African-American neighbor, Louise, whose family owned the original farmland, still lives in a nearby house, watching and eventually intervening as the Noailles struggle with the sinister mysteries of their new home.
There is a palpable sense of apocalyptic menace hovering over the novel, and Flanery excels at depicting the lengths to which people go when their economic livelihood is threatened. The sufferings of the Noallies, especially Copley, pack an emotional wallop. The sinister corporation where Nathaniel works, which has tentacles in security systems, education and the building of prisons, feels eerily familiar: If such a corporation doesn’t exist yet, it may soon. The problem is when all these elements are combined, the sum is less than the collection of its parts. The pile-up of issues in the last quarter of the novel (child abuse, rape, suicide, terrorism and race relations, to name a few) negate the effect Flanery is working to establish. Flanery’s debut, Absolution, was an elegant and moving novel that also looked unsparingly at race and the burden of history. It is clear that he is a gifted storyteller with plenty to say. He just doesn’t have to say it all at once.