The Megabuilders of Queenston Park

nolead begins By Edmund Keeley

Wild River Books. 168 pp. $14.95 paperback

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Susan Balée


Edmund Keeley is a well-known scholar of Greek literature, so pay attention when he names one of his protagonists Cassandra, and don't be surprised when people either don't hear what she's saying or misconstrue her words. This Cassie lives with Nick, her professor husband, in one of Princeton's old neighborhoods. Not a wealthy neighborhood, but a cozy one called Queenston Park - all postwar cinderblock cottages with decent yard space.

After 30 years in the house, they've settled comfortably into their routines and the home they love. And then the megabuilder arrives, his sign rearing up on the lawn of the house next door to theirs, soon followed by himself:  

Cassie was not at all sure that she should be talking to this Randolph Parker of Solar Estates . . . - what did they call these monstrosities, McSomething? - that this company had almost finished building . . . a horrible construction . . . that looked as though it had been made of huge parts that didn't quite fit together three stories high on a mound of new earth that had been brought in to fill much of the original lot and raise the building so that it towered above all the homes around it at the end of the street like a mock castle built to protect some mad local celebrity from the threat of a violent mob.

So begins the struggle between homeowners like Nick and Cassie and the megabuilders. At its best moments, this novel brings to mind John Updike's amused ambivalence about American suburbs and their inhabitants. Keeley obviously sides with Cassie and Nick, but to his credit, he shows the builders' points of view as well. After all, although there's an environmental point to be made - the McMansions suck up the open land and give rainwater nowhere to drain, thus making flooding more likely - it's the loss of their views that really outrages the homeowners.

Nick points out to the megabuilders that the new house next door will limit their view to cars in a driveway. The young scion of the Solar Estates family team, Tim Parker, retorts:

"What do you see now when you look out in that direction? Just an old house on its last legs and a lot of unattended trees."

"Do you hear that, Nick?" Cassie said. "Just a lot of trees."

If you live in Princeton, you'd better be able to laugh at yourself, and Keeley knows how to skewer the locals. Cassie remembers the exiled Russian poet visiting the university who began his reading by thanking his friends in "Prison, New Jersey," for having him. A local township meeting to decide building issues also has witty moments. An ancient resident rises to address the board members about a new sidewalk in his neighborhood:

"My question: why do we need a sidewalk on Coolidge Lane? I don't need a sidewalk. It's supposed to be for children going to school. I don't see any children on Coolidge Lane. All of us have at least one foot in the grave."

Cassie and friends take their case to the Flood and Storm Water Management Committee, where the engineer in charge tells them, "Many things in life are random. Stuff happens, as they say. Origins of flooding are difficult to determine, and so is blame." Cassie, the voice who will and won't be heard, stands up and blurts, "When the floods come, let's just line up on our lawns and pour libations to the gods. That may not be democracy, but at least it means this Committee doesn't have to take any action, and it means nobody has to be blamed."

Township committees and zoning boards are notoriously maddening, as anyone knows who has been to one of their meetings. Keeley makes the most of the oddballs who attend them, including Cassie, who, in a showdown with the builders, says that, if she had a gun, she'd try to shoot one of their houses, but would probably miss, even though it's big as a barn. When Tim Parker of Solar Estates goes missing, her comment seems to have a more sinister meaning.

Near the end of the book, Nick takes a detour down the street where his high school sweetheart lived. Mirabile dictu, she's still there, having come home to care for her parents. Her appearance isn't quite a deus ex machina, nor does Nick ignore what she has to tell him as so many people ignore Cassie. Instead, Nick's old love offers words of wisdom we should all live by. If you want to find out what they are, read the book.

Susan Balée's illustrated memoir of a long trip to Italy will appear in the autumn issue of the Hudson Review.