cover image The Suburbs of Heaven

The Suburbs of Heaven

Merle Drown. Soho Press, $24 (320pp) ISBN 978-1-56947-182-1

The Hutchins family, a smalltown New Hampshire clan, has suffered more than its fair share of tragedy as Drown's antic, tender and bittersweet second novel (after Ploughing Up a Snake) opens. Jim Hutchins's sister, Helen, died after a fall down the cellar stairs, and Jim and Pauline Hutchins's youngest daughter, Elizabeth, drowned in their neighbors' cow pond. Financially strapped, Jim hopes that once he can get his three surviving, wayward children out of trouble, he can live in ""the suburbs of heaven,"" but with ""enough grief to go twice around,"" this family also has the same amount of bad luck. Sorrow has pushed the older son, Gregory, into paranoia, until he feels a snake eating his brain. The younger son, Tommy--always attracted to the wrong woman and always spoiling for a fight--beats up his girlfriend and lands in jail. Daughter Lisa marries a deadbeat, abusive back-woodsman who believes God's righteousness inspires every cruel thing he does. Meanwhile, Pauline, who bails Tommy out and doles out money to desperate Lisa, shares a strange, erotic relationship with Emory Holler, Helen's widower, who inherited a sizable sum from his dead wife's insurance. Emory, whom everyone suspects of killing Helen, gives Pauline money while she dances naked for him, and eventually everyone in town knows about it (thanks to a misplaced videotape), inciting Jim to vengeful violence. Most of the community, including cop B.B. Eyes, is suspicious of the hardscrabble Hutchinses, with Jim and Pauline burdened with tax debt, Lisa turning tricks for liquor, Tommy a known thief and a ""panty pervert"" on the loose. Narrated in the convincing voices of the five Hutchinses, the story veers from ribald to tragic, with consistently amazing plot twists: guns are lost and found; intimate moments are spied upon; revenge is swift, creative and nasty. Throughout, Drown's language shines, and even her most misguided characters are fully alive, resonant, and original, speaking with quiet, piercing wisdom. Author tour. (Feb.)