Suburbia is such an easy target for clever novelists that it's hard to believe there's anyone left to mow the lawn. The much maligned conformity of housewives bearing Jell-O salads is matched only by a phalanx of authors goose-stepping down Main Street to the beat of their satiric anthem. From John Updike's "Rabbit, Run" in 1960 to Tom Perrotta's "Little Children" this spring, we've been taught that the 'burbs are a den of spiritual malaise, sexual anxiety, and consumer frustration.
Stephen Amidon has explored this land before, but as he shows in his new novel, "Human Capital," he's keenly aware that middle-class neighborhoods are not hermetically sealed or morally vacuous. Perhaps his 15 years of working abroad gave him the perspective to see through the illusion of suburban isolation. For him, the gracefully trimmed streets of Pleasantville don't run off stage into the wings; they connect to all the complex surrounding territory.
While other writers show us the sordid results of suburbia's humid containment (i.e. adulterers, pedophiles, witches, robot wives), Amidon generates heart-thumping suspense from the crises of ordinary people trying to earn a living and take care of their children. Indeed, it's the awful plausibility of the plot that make this story so tense and involving.
"Human Capital" follows the interaction of three families in Totten Crossing, Conn., in early 2001. At the center is Drew, an affable, nervous man, who's slipping rung by rung down the ladder of success while "maintaining the aura of easy prosperity." Although the town is booming, a changing market, a failed first marriage, and his own passivity have gradually bankrupted the real estate business his father left him.
But salvation could be close at hand. His daughter's ex-boyfriend is the son of an extraordinarily wealthy man named Quint, who runs a successful hedge fund. Presuming a little too much on that tenuous relationship, Drew insinuates himself into Quint's circle with vague, exaggerated rumors about his own success in the real estate market.
He eventually wins an invitation to buy into the fund, but the minimum investment of $250,000 is about $250,000 more than Drew has. Nevertheless, he's so awed by Quint's "pure, weightless, frictionless money" - the European cars, the tennis courts, the generous donations to their kids' prep school - that he knows riches will flow to him if he can just enter this inner sanctum.
"All he wanted," Amidon writes, "was the stability that would come with just a fraction of such wealth, the sense that he was no longer being buffeted by life. All he wanted was enough." Of course, in a culture that holds up $300 neckties and $40,000 stoves, "enough" is an elusive quantity.
Without telling his wife, Drew borrows the remaining equity from his house - his only remaining asset - and fibs on the NASD application for Quint's fund.
Unless you're a professional gambler or a fool, you won't be surprised to hear that this doesn't work out well. But in Amidon's hands, it's all incredibly suspenseful. As financial storm clouds gather on Drew's horizon, careful, logical Quint finds himself swamped by a confluence of market factors he knows are statistically impossible.
And then these two men find themselves struck by a crisis of an entirely different order: Their children are implicated in a deadly traffic accident. Unknown to either of them, Drew's daughter is no longer dating Quint's son. Instead, she's fallen in love with an earnest young man on parole who's living with his uncle, a limo driver who wants more than to ferry the wealthy between deals.
There's a hard-edged glibness that creeps into this narrative now and then, but it can't spoil the effect of Amidon's deep sympathy. The key to his success - besides a very clever plot - is a collection of characters who approach but defy the easy clichés of class.
Quint turns out not to be the cutthroat wheeler-dealer he's rumored to be. Instead, he's a man inflexibly devoted to rectitude and discipline, qualities that make him as good at spotting inefficiencies in international markets as he is at critiquing his frustrated son. And while this young prince is just as spoiled as you'd expect, beneath the bravado and the alcohol, there's a frightened, nervous boy trying to construct his character from the consumerist ideals around him.
Even Quint's wife, the subject of jealous gossip among the other wives at the shiny Country Day prep school, isn't really - or isn't just - the shallow, presumptuous woman she appears to be. She weathers bouts of crippling shame, delivering some of the novel's best lines about her haute couture culture.
"Cactus mango," she says to herself one night in disbelief. "She wondered what was next. Fish gill chutney. Badger gland smoothies. Soon the human mind would run out of products to invent and that would be the end of time. No heavenly fire or galloping horsemen; no mushroom clouds or incurable plagues. Just a terrible realization that there was no longer anything new in the shops."
Amidon has a keen eye for the distinctive details of upper, middle, and lower-class life, but he's even more insightful about the commonality among these people: Money anxieties gnaw at them all, no matter what their tax bracket, and teenagers baffle them equally. As legal and financial disasters threaten to destroy each of these families, they're tested in ways that sound the true metal of their characters, rich or poor.
Yes, deep pockets enable a different kind of response, the ability to afford a far more effective defense, but in this convergence of devotion, accident, and sin that finally draws them together, money doesn't save these people, any more than lacking it ruins them. That destiny is determined entirely by the moral calculus each of them works out in the moments when what they love most is threatened. Even the coolest reader won't be able to resist racing through this novel, wondering, "What if I were him? What if I were her? What would I do?"
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Ron Charles.