The setting is crazy and unique: a married couple move to Southern California from Boston and buy an expensive home in a neighborhood called Carousel Court in the town of Serenos, about
40 miles east of Los Angeles. Spinning upon the waxy notion of lost and damaged love, Nick Maguire laments that his life with Phoebe seems to have gone with the Santa Ana winds. Amid the harsh heat of another day, beleaguered wife
is approaching the zenith of “the Klonopin highway.” As Phoebe swallows the last of her four pills, she sends Nick a rambling text message,
charging that it is his fault that their marriage is falling apart.
A pharmaceutical representative, Phoebe is mostly driven to distraction by her drug habit and by a desperation that
is reducing her “to walking through vapors.” Upon their arrival in Carousel Court, Nick had hoped to find work as a filmmaker for a PR firm.
But ever since the 2008 financial crisis, he’s been carrying the burden of his failures: an expensive home that is crushing them and the actions of an increasingly erratic Phoebe, who won’t admit to her Klonopin blackouts
or her inability to drag herself up the stairs at night and lay her son Jackson down in his crib with a dry diaper.
The book swings between Phoebe’s rambling text messages to Nick and to JW, an ex-lover and wealthy benefactor whom Phoebe thought she had outgrown. Phoebe drives the freeways because she thinks she's trapped, both by Nick and by Carousel Court. Even as she proclaims her complicated and dysfunctional love for Nick, she accuses him of failing as a husband and a father.
Her Klonopin-addled recollections send her ruthlessly back to Boston. Phoebe remembers the blur of days, the cold drizzle, the red glare of taillights, and the accident that nearly killed her son. Nick, meanwhile, considers another path. Together with a group of Honduran immigrants, he finds a job trashing out foreclosed homes, hoping it will provide a way out of their crushing debt from Carousel Court.
Casting his story in the shadow of Southern California’s refracted sunlight, McGinniss takes Nick and Phoebe’s penchant for self-destruction to an extreme. Even when I loved the author’s prose style, I was less sympathetic to his morally ambivalent characters. Beyond the unrelenting October heat, there's a constant sense of doom-laden self-pity. Between Phoebe’s text messages to JW
(whom she needs more than ever), there’s a constant sense of confusion. Nick is increasingly appalled at his wife’s behavior; he’s unable to control his agitation at Phoebe’s inability to stop consuming copious amounts of pink and yellow pills. It’s been four months since Nick pulled the steering wheel of the dirty white Subaru into deserted, sunbaked Carousel Court. Now a new phase is taking shape and coming into focus, “the life they came out here for, by other means.”
McGinniss writes with energy and vigor, unfolding an apocalyptic plot that
grows increasingly sexual and violent as scenes begin to dovetail with each other, especially within the deeper layers of Nick and Phoebe’s shattered psyches. What starts out as a marriage in crisis soon becomes something much deeper: an examination of the perils of prescription drug addiction. The heart-gripping ending has Phoebe broken and vulnerable, collapsing again to the orbit
of JW, where the only promise of hope skims along amid the cracked freeways and choked traffic. With her veins wide and loose from the Seroquel and the Klonopin, Phoebe can do little else but feel the blood flow as her tension melts away.
While I found McGinniss’ phrasing to be the highlight of the book (even when there was a little too much emphasis on texting as dialogue), far more powerful is his theme: how it is not enough for intelligent and spirited individuals such as Nick and Phoebe to be satisfied with the conformity and blandness of their surroundings. Nick and Phoebe are deeply into playing roles with their co-workers, their friends, and sometimes even their sinister neighbors.
They look forward to things--a move to a rental house in Laguna Beach, an
affair, perhaps even a promotion--yet it seems that for them, happiness is merely an illusion.
Carousel Court is a sad story but one that makes you think about your own life and the ultimate value of what you have accomplished. The book, with its account of the Maguires' tragic and bitter marriage, is actually more about the bleak underbelly of the American Dream. But it also goes much further in its exploration of the sour regret of opportunities missed, how mistakes are sometimes made, and how striving for happiness and personal fulfillment can so easily become hijacked by personal anger and disappointment.