MUCH OF THE COUNTRY has spent the better part of the past year and a half trying to understand disenfranchised white America: its grudges, its prejudices, its feelings of having been wronged. The insularity of small-town life has always held a certain fascination for novelists, but these days novelistic attempts to understand, deconstruct, and empathize with the citizens of such a town also promise to shed light on the massive divide in our country between the urban and the rural, between those constantly seeking reinvention and those resolutely plodding along without change for generations. Who are the “white people” out there who feel so devastatingly left behind, who have become so susceptible to hating the Other? Nonfiction books such as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy attempt to answer such questions directly, while other works of art, such as Susan Henderson’s second novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams, attempt to get inside such a world without the loaded controversy of contemporary politics. She takes the town and its residents on their own terms but leaves the reader with lingering questions that burn.
Set in the fictional town of Petroleum, and based on Winnett, Montana, where Henderson’s grandparents lived and where she spent a month alone doing research for the novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams is about, among other things, the improbability of finding hope amid decay. After the town “hero” (a teenage athlete, as is often the case in such towns) is killed in a grain elevator accident, the grain mill shuts down and a vast number of Petroleum’s residents lose their livelihoods overnight. Naturally, the town needs a villain on whom to blame their misfortune, a role that falls to Robert Golden, the 14-year-old brother of the deceased who inadvertently caused the accident. Petroleum’s cruelty to Robert, both at the time he loses his brother and decades later, when he returns to see his dying mother in the present-day frame of the novel, would be shocking if it weren’t so eerily familiar. Robert is the scapegoat for everything the town has lost, for everything that has passed it by. That he escaped and lives in Seattle (Seattle!) only confirms, in the locals’ eyes, every nefarious thing they’ve attributed to his character.
It is only Mary, the embalmer daughter of the town mortician and the story’s narrator, who sees Robert in a different light. Mary, who in a more urbane environment would likely have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, was a small child when the accident occurred, and she was weaned on its mythologies like the rest of Petroleum. But in part because of her odd profession, Mary serves a role that every small town bestows upon someone: she is the weirdo, the freak, the girl whose affect is too “off” to allow her to fit in with either friends or suitors. So she relies mainly on her aging father for companionship before Robert’s return to town.
Instantly upon meeting him, Mary is drawn to Robert in ways she has not felt in her limited circle, but what is most skillful and interesting about Henderson’s portrayal of Mary’s blooming infatuation is that it is ultimately more about Mary than about the object of her affection. She once held artistic aspirations and planned to leave Petroleum for a different kind of life but ended up trapped, entrenched, and lonely by the age of 30. It is only Robert’s return that allows her to imagine that other possible scenarios might still exist for her beyond her father’s true but oppressive love and her safe but claustrophobic town.
It’s worth noting that The Flicker of Old Dreams does not concern itself much with pacing or the building of suspense. Though it has a romantic attraction at its center, the story is all about desire and not at all about consummation. As such, it may not be for those who want page-turning or edgy reading material. Henderson is a master stylist whose sentences are cut with razor-sharp precision, and what she is crafting here is an old-fashioned literary novel of longing versus obligations in the mold of writers such as Edith Wharton. She builds a world driven by character, by place, by the why more than by the what. She is also unafraid to put death center stage, exploring both its permanence (Mary’s mother died giving birth to her) and the private rebellions with which people attempt to outwit it.
Mary’s long-widowed father, for example, is having an affair with a married waitress. He’s trying to find some pockets of joy in his life now that he has traded the slick TV-commercial stardom of a decade prior for “oily hair, what’s left of it, the stained undershirt, the checkered pajama bottoms with rice stuck to them.” Yet it’s never occurred to him to push beyond his clandestine mutinies, and when he sees his daughter striking up a friendship with Robert he is protective and alarmed, not only because of Robert’s despised status but also, it becomes clear, because he is afraid Mary may also leave Petroleum — and him — behind.
The beauty of what Henderson pulls off here is how little the novel actually hinges on what happens to Mary. A novel of character and process rather than punch lines and clean resolutions, The Flicker of Old Dreams finds the revelatory in individual moments. “I don’t pretend to have any illusions,” Mary tells the reader early in the novel. “I know we’ll get along easiest when I see them on the embalming table.” The lovingly intimate details of Mary’s work are all the more captivating because every body that crosses her table is a person she has known all her life yet been set wholly apart from in her oddity. This mix of intimacy and distance is at the heart of the novel. Also at its heart, interestingly, is the supposition that fulfillment is less about “true love” with one person and more about the ability to dream, to move, to grow.
It has become virtually impossible to think of poor, rural whites in the United States without thinking of racial issues and the manifestation of these issues on the political stage. Yet Henderson has not written a novel to help anyone understand a Trump victory, and it is not about race. The Flicker of Old Dreams is a deep exploration of the way difference is treated in places with a conformist mentality and why scapegoats are essential in the face of devastating mass losses. That this town blames a 14-year-old boy for its misfortunes and essentially drives him into exile in the manner of some old-fashioned banishment is as revealing as it is cruel. These are ordinary people, “salt-of-the-earth” as the media likes to say, people with whom Mary’s well-intentioned father wishes she would fit in. And yet their mistreatment of a kid — a kid who has just lost his brother, no less — brutally illustrates how heartless the insular collective can be when seeking a target for their resentments.
Robert is white, and The Flicker of Old Dreams is a work of realism not allegory, but it’s hard to read this novel without hearing in it the constant echo of how downtrodden white Americans have come to blame immigrants and others they have never met for their troubles. Their troubles are real. They are not sociopaths or killers or “bad people.” Yet the way they treat Robert makes it impossible for the reader to want anything other than Mary’s escape. Do the townspeople have other options? Would it be possible to live in Petroleum and not lash out at Robert? Is it possible to lose everything, to feel oneself disappearing from the modern world, and blame no one? Of course. But is it common? Here, Henderson presents one of the hardest truths of human nature: we all tend to look for someone just a little lower in the power structure to kick.
Robert is the most intriguing and charismatic character in The Flicker of Old Dreams, and it can be a letdown to see him only through Mary’s sheltered and repressed lens, which is flattering but limited. A novel of Robert’s life and perspective would be a more sprawling, rollicking thing, just as Henderson’s debut novel Up from the Blue is a wilder kind of animal, full of arson and mental illness. Henderson’s achievement here is quieter but formidably deep. Though Mary is a memorable narrator and the reader cheers her on, in the end Henderson has crafted a novel that is as much about all the things not said as it is about the things on the page. The Flicker of Old Dreams is not only about art, family loyalty, infatuation, and the demons of the past, it’s also, intractably, unspokenly, about the United States’s horrible divide and the impossibility of healing some old wounds.
In Petroleum, a town left behind, there is kindness, there is forbidden love, there is community, but there is also a stubborn, proud cruelty in a loop of perpetual self-reinforcement: the only people around to bear witness to it are those who initiated it and feel justified in sustaining it. Mary can, ultimately, flee Petroleum if she chooses, and because she is not Robert, because her ostracism is more subtle, she may remember it fondly for all its broken beauty. For the Roberts of the world, however — for those on whom such ordinary, “good” people pin their shattered dreams — the town evokes an ugliness that echoes where we are as a country. Is the problem that the people of Petroleum are inherently prejudicial and mean? Or is it how similar towns all over the United States have become vulnerable enough to allow the spirit of the collective to hinge on a single grain elevator tragedy or one star high school athlete? Henderson does not answer such questions for the reader, but she presents them nakedly, subtly, there on the embalming table where, despite Mary’s clinical clarity, intimacy ultimately overrides our reductive binaries and easy judgments.
Chicago-based writer-editor Gina Frangello is the author of four books, and her work has been published in The Chicago Tribune, Best of the Midwest, Prairie Schooner, and others. She is faculty editor of The Coachella Review.