The Lola Quartet is woven, like those sit-upons you made from folded newspaper in Girl Scouts, out of the front pages of New York City tabloids and Florida dailies. Emily St. John Mandel strings it all together in a convincing story that is dismally depressing and wholly believable. Gavin has his dream job at a New York newspaper, the second most important paper in the city. Only it’s not so dreamy. The newspaper business is in freefall and lay-offs are a weekly bloodbath. Senior reporters scooped up all the good assignments in the days before the papers farmed coverage out to the wire services and freelancers. Gavin feels as if he’d missed the great era and he knows his out-of-town assignment to his childhood home in Florida is a kindness from an editor who likes him.
He hates Florida. His whole life he’s suffered from extreme heat exhaustion and he is in real physical distress in a subtropical climate. But he diligently plods around interviewing Everglades rangers and homeowners along canal banks where deadly giant pythons have been turning up. Florida is becoming a perilous place to live as exotic wild beasts multiply and grow to enormous size–and threaten to devour a few toddlers in their own backyards. Gavin gets the story but he gets something he hadn’t counted on, a reminder of a painful moment of his past that he discovers isn’t over.
In his confusion, he forgets to write down the name of the person who gave him the quote he needs to make his story. And when he gets back to the Big Apple and the deadline, he makes up a name and “helps” the quote a little farther along toward juicy. Where have we seen that fatal mistake before? He’s slightly sick about it but soon he does it again, and again. His concentration is gone, his friends are gone from the paper, he’s probably next and the news from Florida has taken over his mind.
What Gavin sees is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl who is a ringer for his only sister. The child could be his high school girlfriend’s. She vanished on the eve of graduation without a goodbye or an explanation. So Gavin went off to college and his big career, got engaged, got unengaged and, when the truth about his journalistic embroidery comes out, gets fired. Pretty soon he gets evicted, too. Homeless, he heads back to Florida where his sister has offered him a job helping her to foreclose and re-sell houses, and a place to stay. In Florida he confronts the remnants of the Lola Quartet.
The quartet was a group of high school jazz enthusiasts who played fairly well, entertained their peers and scored a few gigs around town. They haven’t kept in touch but that’s about to change. Contemporary events color this story throughout. There’s a Bernie Madoff-like scandal, Gavin’s own malfeasance and public firing, the demise of the communications industry, drowned newspaper journalists washing up on the shore of online content production gigs, unwed mothers raising kids in adequate and in abusive conditions, gambling addictions and the proliferation of scratch-off lottery games, drug dealers, thieves on the lam, crooked cops who wish they weren’t–not too much that’s admirable about our present culture is left out.
Anna, the mother of the girl who looks like Gavin’s sister, happens to have walked off with more than $100,000 from a drug dealer who gave her a place to stay when she had the baby. Chloe, the child, is a beacon for all kinds of hopes but the lives around her are too broken for much good to come of anything. Duplicity haunts half the characters and literally drives them to murder. Things rapidly slide from bad to worse to really terrible.
I found the book depressing, if only because the events were so spot-on. What happens in The Lola Quartet is the real deal, thinly disguised as fiction. Very well done, too. Sad. You can see the train wrecks coming a mile away but they plow on into disaster anyway. I didn’t need to escape this messed-up reality into an even messier one just like it, so I can’t say I enjoyed this book. I can say that Emily St. John Mandel can tell a good story and she threads together a ton of recognizable raw material into a coherent plot. The Lola Quartet works–and if your life is gleaming and perfect and you want to tone it down a bit, this could be a terrific choice to while away a few hours.
The Lola Quartet Emily St. John Mandel | Unbridled Books 2012