American pastoral

Human Capital

Stephen Amidon <em>Viking, 375pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0670915270

Stephen Amidon's new novel is set at the beginning of 2001 in Totten Crossing, an affluent Connecticut suburb. In Totten, history is for losers; everything is shiny and new. The inhabitants respect only money, and a person's worth - or "human capital" - is determined solely by his or her financial assets. If you are not rich, it is because you have failed.

Although the setting is modern, the various elements of the plot - a small town, three families divided by social status, a single unifying event - are not new. Drew Hagel, owner of a real-estate business, maintains an outward show of easy prosperity. Recently, however, a tough competitor has moved into Totten Crossing; Drew will lose his livelihood and self-respect if he cannot quickly find money. Quint Manning is a millionaire investor whose life consists of weekend meetings and tennis parties, and who displays his wealth with five-litre cars, home cinemas and $300 ties. Drew's daughter, Shannon, used to date Quint's teenage son Jamie, but tired of his inattentive drunkenness and now goes out with Ian, a poor boy on a drug rehabilitation programme. Ian lives with his uncle David, a shady limousine driver who supplied the drugs that landed him in trouble. These families represent the top, middle and bottom of Totten's hierarchy.

By exaggerating his wealth, Drew talks his way on to Quint's client list (to obtain the $250,000 minimum stake, he secretly remortgages his house). Despite being "a certainty", the investment fails. To make matters worse, there is a hit-and-run accident in which Shannon, Jamie and Ian are all involved to various degrees. As these events unfold, the differences between weak and strong become brutally apparent. A gripping confrontation takes place between Drew and Quint in which Drew's tongue-tied reasonableness contrasts with Quint's steely self-assurance; the outcome is so inevitable that you want to avert your gaze politely on Drew's behalf. Yet although the novel's framework is familiar, the turn of events is not, and the story remains fascinating right to its unexpected end.

Amidon's strength lies in his ability to create complex characters who demand both our sympathy and our disdain. He does this partly by paying close attention to their life stories (perhaps a little too much during the opening 50 pages), but mainly through his grasp of human nature. No one is two-dimensional or presented in an exclusively good or bad light. Even Quint and David, the novel's most unsympathetic characters, are not entirely unlikeable.

Amidon is particularly strong on motives; he sees that a snarled threat lurks behind even the blandest corporate cliche. He is most at home when describing the disreputable rich. Institutional investors are "a creepy gaggle of lipless functionaries"; Hollis Hardy, a sleazy lawyer who wears ripped jeans and an Australian bush hat, is a man who "cultivated surface eccentricities in the hope it would camouflage [his] lack of imagination for anything except money".

Although there are comic touches, this is primarily a novel about pain. Everyone is flawed and lost - even the young, for whom childhood has been sacrificed to parental expectations. If there is one word that sums up the characters, it is "disappointment": many of them feel it; all of them cause it in one way or another.

Yet Human Capital itself does not disappoint. What appears at first to be a quiet portrait of suburbia turns out to be a brilliant examination of the undertow of sadness and desperation that tugs at the American dream.