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16 January 2019

America explained: Douglas Kennedy’s strangely mesmerising new novel

The Great Wide Open reads like an old friend recounting a tale over dinner. 

By Ian Sansom

The Great Wide Open might be a description of the book, or indeed of Douglas Kennedy’s career: both territories are absolutely vast.

Kennedy, just in case you haven’t been paying attention, is a modern man of letters and an international best-seller. According to his publisher he currently “divides his time between Maine, Manhattan, Paris, London and Berlin”: most of us can barely manage to divide our time between work and home. But Kennedy is restless, both personally and professionally, and in terms of style and genre. Essentially, he writes glossy high-end sagas that have a steely literary core. The obvious comparison might be with the work of, say, Robert Harris: books that are not only readable and accomplished but also somehow unsettling.

He has sold millions of copies worldwide, which of course makes one wonder why – and how. American, born in Manhattan, Kennedy started out writing radio plays while working at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin: which perhaps explains his ability with dialogue; his characters can really talk. He then worked as a columnist for the Irish Times and wrote for these pages, the Guardian, the Sunday Times, GQ and Esquire – which perhaps explains the smoothness of the style. He knocked out a few travel books: which perhaps explains the scope of the work, its ambition. And he also has an excellent podcast in which he discusses all sorts of personal, political and literary subjects, which clearly indicates the depths that lurk beneath the surface.

The Great Wide Open is Kennedy’s 13th novel. I’ve read half a dozen or more, starting with his second, The Big Picture (1997), which set the tone of the books that have followed: long, languorous, immersive tales about rich, intelligent people, often women, who find themselves in unexpected circumstances and who somehow muddle through. Thoughtful, troubling, slightly sexy: in France, where Kennedy has lived for many years, his work is revered and he is a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The books read like super plush versions of Simenon’s romans durs (“tough” novels) – romans doux, perhaps.

The narrator of The Great Wide Open is Alice Burns, born to an American Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother, who works in publishing in New York. Over the course of almost 600 pages Alice tells us her family’s whole sorry history during the previous 40 years, which usefully illuminates the recent past of America, “a great country with a crazed violent underside to it”.

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Alice’s father is a tough former US marine who fought in Okinawa, and who becomes a mining executive for a company with interests in Chile. Her mother is from a family of immigrants. One of her brothers, Adam, “My Brother the Felon”, is a Wall Street crook who has ended up in prison. Her other brother, Peter, writes a book that reveals the family’s dirty secrets.

There are multiple flashbacks and subplots, taking us from Connecticut in the 1970s to 1980s New York, with a brief detour to Dublin, and all which eventually interconnect: a girl goes missing at Alice’s school, having been bullied for being a lesbian; a favourite college teacher, a Professor Hancock, unexpectedly commits suicide; everyone does stupid things and makes stupid mistakes; and Alice is in on it all. “I am someone who keeps secrets,” she announces at one point, and as she recounts her story you realise that The Great Wide Open has several meanings.

The book is not perfect, but it is absolutely excellent of its kind. Like all of Kennedy’s work, it has a strangely mesmerising effect. He seems always at pains to explain things, and is never happier than when labouring some point or other – something about the Puritans, or Chile, or college football – yet what would seem irksome in some authors he gets away with, charming the reader with a kind of modest yet insistent drawling that creates the instant effect of intimacy.

Sometimes it’s just too much, particularly in the big summings-up: “You can never really see the future… You can make plans, embrace hopes. But the music of chance is always there, life’s ever-incessant variations reminding you that the capacity for the interesting, the good, the wondrous will always be counterbalanced by the bad, the tragic, the downright terrible.” But mostly The Great Wide Open reads like an old friend recounting a tale over dinner. One could wish for much worse dinner companions than Douglas Kennedy. 

Ian Sansom’s novel “The Sussex Murders” will be published in May by Fourth Estate

The Great Wide Open 
Douglas Kennedy
Hutchinson, 592pp, £20

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This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain