Practically by design, novelists are people who honor the feelings and behaviors that connect us. But few things make them more skeptical than a community. The just-so surfaces of suburbia were a favorite target in postwar American fiction, from Peyton Place to “The Lottery” to the Rabbit novels. A small castle can be constructed out of novels satirizing the degradations of Marxist central planning. Postapocalyptic novels from YA (The Hunger Games) to literary fiction (Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea) reveal the folly of attempts to maintain order amid social chaos. Utopian societies? The only way those succeed is as a story prompt. T. C. Boyle (Drop City) and Lauren Groff (Arcadia) have set novels in such places only to collapse them, turn them into hubristic symbols of our inability to keep our reckless selves in check.
Adam Sternbergh feels no differently. But the neat trick of his third novel, The Blinds, is that he builds a smart, pulpy crime novel out of that material — it’s a critique of our best-intentioned it-takes-a-village sentiments that’s both more realistic and more weaponized than similar treatments. Calvin Cooper is the ad hoc sheriff in a West Texas community called the Blinds, founded by a well-funded institute that’s experimenting in erasing memories. Criminals and those who’ve suffered traumas have the uglier proteins in their brains zapped; in exchange for not being stalked by their memories of the havoc they wreaked (or experienced) in the outside world, the seventy-odd residents must stay within the town limits. “You are not in jail. You are not in hell,” a deputy explains to some new arrivals. “You are in Texas.”
The premise of the Blinds is so intriguing that you don’t dwell too much on that erasing-memories business, even though it’s the most volatile material you can pick up at the Hubristic Tropes Store. Sternbergh helps his cause by treating the matter gently, at least at first. The people responsible for doing the erasing are at a distance, genially described as “head scrubbers,” and the official name for the Blinds is Caesura — just a short pause, a tiny gap. Caesura is framed as an advanced version of the federal witness program, “a way to deal with . . . the killers, the serial rapists, the child predators, the ones who had knowledge and leverage.” Besides, too much else is going on with the plot to consider ethical consequences too closely. The supposedly gun-free town has experienced two gun deaths in a matter of weeks; residents are chafing against the lack of information in their Internet-free haven; and one resident, Fran, has become understandably concerned for the safety of her eight-year-old son — the only child in the Blinds.
“This is a fragile ecosystem we live in here,” Calvin informs the town, and there’s no clearer symbol of that fragility than Calvin himself, a lawman with no true authority except the trust he’s been given, and which is rapidly eroding. That fragility is also clear in the fake names that residents are forced to take as soon as they arrive, pulling one name from a list of old-school movie stars and another from a list of vice presidents. This gives reading The Blinds the pleasurable sense that its characters are populating a Turner Classic Movies marathon — Spiro Mitchum, Fran Adams, Hubert Gable, Hannibal Cagney. But the names are veneers. In time, it’s clear that the stories the residents are hiding are so brutal that they can’t help but force themselves to the surface. And Sternbergh isn’t polite about shocking us out of our hope for the community. How do you feel about animals set on fire? Or mass murder? (One resident, it turns out, was a gangster nicknamed “Costco,” because “he liked to kill in bulk.”)
Grand Guignol gestures like those are easier to swallow than the convoluted path Fran takes to learn the truth about the Blinds and her son. (It involves a tattoo and likely the only time in fiction or real life that a Susan Sontag book will be used to help solve a crime.) And the implications of the concept get a little messy in the telling in the closing chapters. Erasing memories: bad. OK. But recovering from that erasure, in The Blinds, can alternately endow you with newfound moral strength, resurface your old malevolence, or flood you with guilt. This range of behaviors might seem to speak to our messy humanity, too, if they didn’t seem like matters of plot mechanics, a way to ensure the appropriate person gets saved and/or gets a claw hammer lodged in their noggin.
But Sternbergh sells the basic point: We mess with our psyches at our peril, and one way we mess with our psyches is persuading ourselves that we’re just a few regulations away from maintaining order. “The minds of the guilty . . . are endlessly fascinating, once you really roll up your sleeves,” Sternbergh writes. Guilty of crimes, he means, but there are so many other kinds of guilt a novelist can play with, so many ways for a community to interestingly fail. Sternbergh may not even have to leave West Texas to keep exploring that idea. Every dystopian story, Margaret Atwood once wrote, ends with the suggestion of a possible utopia, and The Blinds closes with a reminder that the planned-community dream hasn’t die. “They only face the same challenges of every new hopeful settlement that’s ever been established in human history,” he writes. It’s a cautionary message. But it’s a pretty good setup for a sequel, too.
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