It’s no secret that Norah Vincent can write compelling non-fiction. For her first book, Self-Made Man (2006), she transformed herself into a passable male through weight lifting, voice lessons, wardrobe, makeup and a chest-flattening bra, then set out to “infiltrate exclusive all-male environments and if possible learn their secrets.” After infiltrating a blue-collar bowling league, a strip club, a monastery, and a men’s movement group, she produced a book that is neither gimmicky nor the feminist screed you might expect. It brought to mind Black Like Me, in which the white writer John Howard Griffin dyed his skin and traveled through the deep South in the early 1960s, passing as a black man. Like Griffin, Vincent is by turns appalled and uplifted by the things she learns on the other side of a supposedly uncrossable line. She discovers little things, like the meaningful physicality of male greetings (as opposed to tepid female hugs and air kisses); and she discovers big things, like the surprising amount of rejection hetero males learn to endure from the women they pursue.
The stress of keeping up the central ruse of Self-Made Man left Vincent feeling so ragged that she checked herself into a hospital’s locked psychiatric ward. Like Ken Kesey and Frederic Exley, she discovered that the loony bin is full of something besides crazy people. “(O)nce I got in there,” she writes, “I realized that bins are pretty fertile ground for writers of my stripe, and not altogether uninteresting places to be locked away for a few days with a notebook and a crayon (or whatever other nubby stylus they’ll let you get your certifiable fist around)…I said to myself, ‘Jesus, what a freak show. All I have to do is sit there and take notes, and I’m Balzac.’” After leaving the psych ward, Vincent also did stints in a private rural hospital and an alternative treatment program, which led to her 2008 book Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin. She calls both books “immersion journalism.”
Now the talented Ms. Vincent has produced her first novel. It’s called Thy Neighbor and, like its two non-fiction predecessors, it’s built on the premise that truth is best reached by a road paved with deception. The protagonists in all three books are voyeurs, people who use deceit to make themselves invisible, literally or figuratively, so they can see people in their most unvarnished states.
Nick Walsh, the narrator of Thy Neighbor, is a mess. At 34 he’s marginally employed as a freelance writer and still living in the suburban house in the Midwest where he grew up, the house where, 13 years ago, his father shot his mother dead and then killed himself. Nick, to put it mildly, has issues. His only friend is a blubbery lecher named Dave Alders — “a dead soul in a goblin’s body” — who accompanies him on nightly tours of a bar called the Swan, where they get knee-walking drunk and try half-heartedly to get laid. Nick sleeps most of the day, then revives himself with DayQuil, Gatorade, Valium, and Xanax before repeating the nocturnal ritual. It’s almost Elvisoidally bleak.
But it gets even bleaker, and creepier. Nick has gotten a technician acquaintance to install hidden cameras and microphones in the homes of assorted neighbors, including Dave, for the simple reason that “people are only themselves when they’re alone, when there’s no one there to see it.” Nick, like any artist, is after the truth, and his rationale for spying on his neighbors is both intensely personal and emblematic of something loose in the wider culture:
I despise their hermetic normalcy too much not to violate it, and for no better reason than the sheer pleasure of hearing it pop. They don’t deserve their happiness if that’s even what it is. To me it’s fake happiness. The margarine version of what the philosophers meant. But it seems to do for the majority, and all the quirks and bland neuroses that fill it up yield surprising substance if you look with hateful enough eyes, hear with spiteful enough ears. If you take a resentful interest, you can make it more than what it is. If you want to destroy it from the minutiae out, you will see the diabolical in the detail, and savor it. A voyeur’s incriminating pointillism. Connect the dots and make the damning picture.
But then, maybe this is simply what bored people do.
And bored destroyed people pry with vengeance, then justify it by recourse to their pain.
Or maybe it’s technology that made us all so prurient, craving more of the real in our reality TV.
I think the truest reason I do it is to find out all I can about what is findable, even if it’s mostly mundane, because there’s so much I can’t find out about what matters. I’ll never know why my parents died, or any of the details. I’ll never get my mind around it. I’ll never be whole or unharmed or kind again. But I can know everything about my neighbors’ lives, and in so doing, I can ease what is unsatisfied in me.
This is dark stuff, but Vincent can also be acidly funny. Here’s Nick recalling his fraternity hazing in college, when he and 10 other pledges were locked in a bathroom for 24 hours while the theme song from Cheers played nonstop at high volume: “We nearly tore each other’s hair and teeth out. After twenty-three hours of that, I would have sucked cock for pocket change at a Shriners convention and given the proceeds to al-Qaeda, just to get my hands on the stereo.” And here’s Nick imaging what a violent neighbor would do if he found out he was being spied on: “He’d kick in the back door, throw a hood over my head, and spirit me upstate to one of his deer hunters’ goon forts, where I’d wake up in a circle of inbred Dave types feasting on muskrat and questioning my loyalty to the secessionist U.S. of A.”
Nick’s late mother was a woman with intellectual pretensions who was driven to drink by the monotony of life in this unnamed Midwestern suburb (Vincent was born in Detroit). Here’s Mrs. Walsh’s estimation of America: “This is a nation of idiots breeding more idiots, a rabble whose only useful function is to fight our foreign wars and donate organs.” As Nick puts it, “She was a highly educated woman who didn’t take tips from women’s magazines. She didn’t need the guidance of other women, or the culture, which, as she pointed out, was just a bunch of C-students with dicks sitting around a conference table trying to sell you crap you didn’t need, or trying to make you feel inferior if you balked.”
There’s wisdom tucked into this wit, but Vincent doesn’t — yet — have the appetite or, maybe, the chops to sustain it for 300 pages. Then again, how many writers do? Maybe Martin Amis, or Mark Leyner, or Gary Shteyngart, or Sam Lipsyte. At any rate, the list is short. And remember, this is Vincent’s first novel.
After Nick starts sleeping with an enigmatic woman named Monica, his quest for the truth begins to come uncomfortably close to home — to the truth about his widow neighbor, Mrs. Bloom, and the truth about his parents’ deaths and, finally, the truth about Monica. Discovering these truths doesn’t set Nick free, but it does give him the wisdom to see the rest of his life as a sentence, and it gives him the strength to make a vow: “I will do my sentence with joy and constant invention.” That’s not nothing, considering what a mess he was at the outset.
Much as Self-Made Man brought to mind Black Like Me, Thy Neighbor echoes that great John Cheever short story from 1956, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” It’s the story of a seemingly well adjusted, 34-year-old suburbanite named Johnny Hake who unexpectedly loses his job, falls into financial difficulty, and tries to dig himself out by sneaking into his neighbors’ unlocked houses and stealing money in the dead of night. After their similar set-ups, though, Vincent’s novel and Cheever’s story veer apart. Unlike Nick Walsh, Johnny Hake is wracked by remorse for his deceit, and his snug suburban life begins to unravel from the stress of that unbearable remorse. But he’s saved by a tiny miracle — a rain squall that surprises him on his way to a fresh victim’s house — and his equilibrium is almost magically restored. “I wish I could say that a kindly lion had set me straight,” Johnny says, “or an innocent child, or the strains of distant music from some church, but it was no more than the rain on my head — the smell of it flying up my nose — that showed me the extent of my freedom from (my father)…and the works of a thief.”
How far we’ve come in the short half-century since that story appeared in The New Yorker! Today, thanks to technology and our prurient knack for misusing it, we don’t just remove money from our neighbors’ wallets when we get in a tight spot; now we spy on our neighbors with hidden cameras and microphones, we gaze unseen at their naked secrets. No, that’s not quite right. There are no more secrets, as Thy Neighbor so artfully demonstrates, and we know so much that it’s bound to kill someone, and deaden us. Worse, we’re beyond being redeemed by a rain squall and a renewed appreciation for the miracle of being alive.
That’s the heart-breaking truth at the heart of Norah Vincent’s dark funny debut novel.