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A California dream dead-ends in Joe McGinniss Jr.'s 'Carousel Court'

A California dream dead-ends in Joe McGinniss Jr.'s 'Carousel Court'
Joe McGinniss, Jr. is the author of the novel "Carousel Court." (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Nick and Phoebe Maguire are a couple in their early 30s, newly relocated from the East Coast to Southern California, where Nick was supposed to start a promising public relations/filmmaking job while Phoebe took some much-needed time off following a car accident that injured both her and Jackson, their toddler son.

They've bought a house on Carousel Court in a town called Serenos, 40 miles from Los Angeles — think Upland — taking one of those zero-down, interest-only loans that caused the subprime mortgage crisis that tanked our economy not so long ago.

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The novel "Carousel Court" is a raw, close-up portrait of a married couple tormented by money problems in the midst of a national recession. There are no dates or defining specifics in the book, but it's easily recognizable as a product of the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Author Joe McGinniss Jr. zooms in on the lives of one couple with the kinds of stressors experienced by many in the poisonous privacy of their own homes. The result is thrilling and uncomfortable — a novel that dwells in the filth of love and hate and blame and money in post-crash America with an intimacy that never lets up.

'Carousel Court' by Joe McGinnis Jr.
'Carousel Court' by Joe McGinnis Jr. (Simon & Schuster)

The Maguires' personal bubble lasted just long enough for them to pour money into HGTV-inspired renovations — an hourglass pool with a wet bar; a rock-climbing wall. They intended to flip the house; they were counting on the profits. Now "[i]t's underwater, sinking fast, has the three of them by the ankles, and isn't letting go."

They're not the only ones in trouble. Carousel Court is almost all new construction, and the houses around them are emptying, foreclosed on, tagged with graffiti. His job offer rescinded — due to the economic downturn — Nick works for a company called EverythingMustGo! performing "[b]ank-sanctioned home invasions," trashing out foreclosed homes. It's a low-prestige, low-income job, and Nick can feel the weight of his wife's growing unhappiness and disgust. "What he can't wrap his mind around, what he dreads: facing her in the quietest hours of the night when he's the reason she can't sleep."

Phoebe has her own problems, including a walloping addiction to prescription drugs — she favors Klonopin, mixed with a kicker or two of other pills. "On low-dosage days the ground beneath her hardens, common sounds are shrill: Jackson's cries more urgent, Nick's words more hollow." Her job as a pharmaceutical rep gives her easy access to doctors, some of whom can be manipulated with photos of Phoebe flashing her underwear.

Nick and Phoebe hatch separate, secret plans to bail their family out of trouble — like "The Gift of the Magi," but horrible. Nick decides to steal from the rich and prey on the poor, renting empty houses to people in desperate circumstances. ("Their kids are six and nine. Their house is a four-bedroom foreclosure in Corona.") For some reason, Phoebe doesn't trust her husband to save them despite his obvious treasure-trove of great ideas: "It was all on her, Phoebe felt, to run this thing. To keep them going. If they were going to ascend, plateau at a level she could live with, it was all on her. Phoebe knew and resented it." She contacts JW, a wealthy old flame/creepy ex-boss who's been a constant wedge in her marriage. He has the connections to get her a job, and she's willing to use him, at the risk of being used.

The Maguires' marriage suffers, of course — already sexless and resentful at the start of the book, it becomes hateful and vicious as husband and wife lose themselves in their scheming and lose control even of their schemes. They fight constantly ("'I'd have more respect for you if you were afraid. …Then again, if you were fearless, you'd show some confidence,' she says") —I haven't read so many low blows since Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road."

The nastiness is toxic and pervasive, against a backdrop infested with physical threat — multiple Chekhov's guns, as well as Chekhov's fires, pills, knives, climbing walls — the marriage starts to feel not just tense but enormously dangerous. "Tonight he has no answer to the question: What separates him and Phoebe from cable-news killers?" The book maintains a tight focus on Nick and Phoebe's relationship (Jackson is mostly out of the picture, at day care, or left with the magical Vietnamese nanny who lives on their street), but their domestic troubles are so disastrous that they deliver suspense by the bucket.

The writing is taut and swift, with spare, propulsive sentences in short chapters — 97 of them in 350 pages (with whole pages devoted to rapid-fire, soul-sucking text exchanges). "The days are tough and grinding, long needles scraping bone." The tension and misery rarely let up, and despite the relief available in not reading this book, it's very hard to look away.

Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel "Dead Soon Enough."

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Joe McGinniss Jr.

Simon & Schuster: 368 pp., $26

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Tuesday: Joe McGinniss Jr. reads from 'Carousel Court'

Where: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 9

Admission: Free

Info: www.booksoup.com or (310) 659-3110

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