David Goodwillie leans heavily on nostalgic sentimentality to carry his literary mystery novel, Kings County, but the suspense-driven plot flounders as the characters bounce between the highlights of a has-been tour of scenester Brooklyn. Set mainly in north Brooklyn, the epicenter of hipster culture, the novel unfolds during a period of rapid gentrification overlaid against the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Audrey Benton, a music producer, arrived in Brooklyn with nothing. The novel flashes between the present of 2011 and Audrey’s past as she builds her life. After a decade, she’s living in Bushwick (but actually East Williamsburg) with Theo, a writer. Audrey is ostensibly the heroine, but Goodwillie’s sympathies lay with Theo and it’s hard to not see him as the focus.
We flash into Theo’s past learning his blue-collar father, a union electrician turned ultra-conservative, opposed Theo attending college because he sees college as elitist. Problematically, he is a one-dimensional cliche of red America, a caricature rather than a character. Theo is laid off, paralleling his father and brother’s plight. Money provides a persistent concern until it suddenly doesn’t, conveniently fading away.
The Westfields, a band, appear throughout the novel, providing Audrey an occupation and serving as a prop lending credibility that the novel has captured the hipster scene, when north Brooklyn launched the careers of notable indie bands. Audrey’s former roommate, Sarah Foster, has abandoned Brooklyn for Manhattan where she spends time with “stroller pushers” and “brunchers,” waiting for a proposal from her boyfriend, Chris Van Vleck, who has family money. In flashbacks, we meet Audrey’s mother and grandmother and several tertiary characters. And finally, there is Fender, whose unexpected death triggers the novel’s plot. Audrey tries to confirm he committed suicide, and then worries his death is a portent to her own murder.
The story unfolds as the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken over Zuccotti Park. We flash back over the last decade so Goodwillie can fill in essential story elements like Audrey growing up in a trailer park or Theo’s childhood in a down-and-out, blue-collar milltown struggling with the new economy. We learn Audrey worked as an escort, was raped by a john, and finally, how Fender helped Audrey blackmail the rapist. Martin Cafferty, a banker, pays the ransom but leaves a threatening note. Audrey remembers this threat after learning of Fender’s suicide.
The flashbacks and disjointed narrative timeline bog down the pacing. Goodwillie leads us down numerous pathways with backstories, but few seem relevant. Theo’s personal history with his father sidetracks the story. Theo’s father contrasts with Chris, a banker who looks down on the Occupy Wall Street protests from his office, and whose family money keeps him afloat while he gambles with institutional investments. Meanwhile, Theo’s brother Carl gambles at casinos because, if the symbolism isn’t clear, he’s poor. These backstories, like the protest, are essential to the novel’s aspirations of class critique, but actually feel more like set dressing. Goodwillie is striving to write a class-conscious novel disguised as a mystery, but neither comes through clearly.
The most interesting subplot in the novel is Sarah’s flirtation with a wealthy art buyer, but this trunk line goes nowhere. After an exciting bit of over-the-phone flirting, Sarah plays faithful girlfriend while Chris finds himself canoodling with Kinsey, an Occupy activist. Sarah’s interaction with a strange man creates the possibility Martin Cafferty might be stalking her too, but it never evolves into anything.
Despite the missteps, Goodwillie’s mystery holds unexpected twists. Audrey’s secrets create tension with Theo, and drive suspense for the reader. The wandering narrative serves as misdirection to keep us guessing. Goodwillie doles out information sluggishly, only providing details when absolutely necessary. The plot has a lot of inertia. It churns slowly at first, but once it chugs forward, it rushes towards the conclusion. Nevertheless, much of the novel feels like unnecessary filling.
There is great affection for hipster Brooklyn, and a sense that Goodwillie has written a love letter to this particular time and place, even if at moments this is detrimental to the novel. The characters wander through a theme park of a Brooklyn-past and name-drop institutions like Kokie’s, the Abbey, Enids, Trash Bar— most of which have since shuttered. East Williamsburg is referred to as Morgantown, a disparaged moniker nobody actually uses, and Goodwillie projects the sense of reaching for verisimilitude but achieving only truthiness. The novel is paying homage to a rapidly vanishing scene, trapping it in amber for future generations to marvel at. This is a nostalgia trip. For the readers who lived through this era, the many recognizable locations play to a wistful longing for a bygone time, but for others, the references lack sentimentality.
This yearning for the past also stems from rapid change as gentrification pushed out longtime residents while simultaneously ending the bohemian mindset of the early aughts. Goodwilie presents this process problematically, describing Theo and Audrey as “not true pioneers” but instead “settlers,” without acknowledging that they live in historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods or that gentrification is a form of colonization. If these phrases were meant ironically, there is no indication. Instead, Goodwillie describes gentrification by saying “the immigrant neighborhoods of North Brooklyn had cracked open, and beautiful, bedraggled twenty-somethings were pouring in.” Theo and Audrey lament the gentrification, while failing to account that they are the gentrifiers.
Kings County wants to be a novel steeped in literary richness while providing a suspenseful, plot-driven narrative. Frustratingly, it falls short on both accounts. It might have succeeded on nostalgia alone, but is bogged down by poor pacing and an overly sentimental eye. The novel is a big, expansive story, and while there is fun reliving these now disappeared haunts, more of this weight should have been given over to substance. We are transported to this time and place, but setting is not enough to carry the novel. Kings County offers a nostalgic reflection loosely wrapped around a not very suspenseful mystery.
By David Goodwill
Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
Published July 28, 2020