Cape Cod occupies a particular place in the American imagination, especially in the summer. The name alone conjures images of cool breezes, charming cottages and eating lobster rolls on the beach. For New Englanders looking for a weekend getaway, Cape Cod sounds idyllic. But as Patrick Dacey demonstrates in his skillful debut novel, The Outer Cape, every place has its dark side.
Dacey's novel follows the family of Robert and Irene Kelly, a little more than 10 years after they first met in New York in the late 1970s. Robert is a businessman who takes over his father's home construction business in Cape Cod; Irene is an aspiring artist who has put her ambitions on hold to raise their two sons, Nathan and Andrew. They were once happy, but no longer: "Full of love then, full of a kind of disgust now."
"Disgust" might be understating it. The novel starts with a brutal fight between the couple that results in Robert's hospitalization after Irene hurls a piece of stoneware at his head. Later that night, they engage in rough sex, devoid of any kind of affection. It's an effective introduction that sets the tone for the novel — the reader understands right away that Dacey isn't going to sugarcoat this tale of a profoundly unhappy family.
The family doesn't get any happier. After Robert realizes that the construction business he inherited is tanking, thanks to the real estate crash of the early '90s, he decides to throw a Hail Mary and enter into a fishy scheme selling nonexistent houses in Tennessee. If he attracts enough investors, he thinks, he can recoup his business losses — unless, of course, the FBI takes notice. Unfortunately for Robert, the FBI takes notice.
With his marriage in tatters, Robert moves to Las Vegas, searching for work, or better yet, another of the get-rich-quick schemes he finds irresistible. Meanwhile, a broke Irene takes a government job, and does her best to raise their two boys on her own. She does her best not to give into despair, too, but it's tough: "It's as though she has lived inside a different person every five years. And each of them looks worse and worse. How pointless it is to live so long in order to look so terrible. You don't win anything by surviving."
The second part of The Outer Cape takes place more than 20 years later. Robert is due to be released from prison — he got in trouble with the feds again, this time for tax evasion — just in time to hear that his estranged wife has become profoundly ill. The couple's kids, now grown men, come to the Cape to visit their mother. Andrew is successful, but in a troubled relationship; Nathan, once a promising football player, has suffered trauma of his own, leaving him with drug dependency issues.
There are millions of ways for families to fall apart, but not many disintegrate quite as depressingly as the Kellys. The Outer Cape can be painful to read, but that's mainly because Dacey has drawn characters so realistic, so imperfect and flawed and human, that it's hard not to feel for them. That's true even for Robert — he's a racist with a violent streak, an adulterer, a no-account husband and father, but Dacey makes the reader feel something like pity toward him.
Like he did in his first book, the short story collection We've Already Gone This Far, Dacey puts his characters through the wringer, but never in a needlessly cruel way. He allows them to keep their dignity even in undignified situations, and he recognizes that even when they make horrible mistakes, they remain human beings, scared of dying and painfully aware of their mortality. "You spend so much time dodging death," Robert observes at one point. "Then the smallest thing, you know, the thing you can't see, it creeps right up inside you and steals you away."
What's most impressive about The Outer Cape is how Dacey finds new life in a genre that's at risk of being played out. "Unhappy families living in New England" has been explored by writers as talented as John Updike, Richard Yates and John Cheever, but Dacey mimics none of them — his rough-edged, plainspoken style is all his own. The Outer Cape is a wonderful book from a remarkably talented author with a (depressing) message for us: "Conditions must be right for mass destruction to take place. When a tornado forms, the only thing one can do is get the hell out of its path."