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Novelist Jonathan Dee on How Financiers Influence Politics

In a new novel, “The Locals,” an ultrawealthy Manhattan hedge fund manager moves to his Berkshires vacation home full-time and winds up controlling the town. Writer Jonathan Dee tells Institutional Investor how real-life events influenced his plot.

  • Amanda Cantrell

What happens when the richest man in town becomes the only person who can keep it afloat?

That’s the question at the center of The Locals, Jonathan Dee’s new novel about a hotshot New York hedge fund manager named Philip Hadi who owns a summer home in Howland, Massachusetts, a fictional small town in the Berkshires. Hadi is clearly wealthy but is not ostentatious; his vacation home isn’t particularly big, and he eats breakfast at the local greasy spoon. Still, he doesn’t exactly fit in. Hadi comes across as disconcertingly direct and doesn’t bother trying to blend in with the year-round residents. Though not unfriendly, he is regarded with suspicion, as are most of the summer residents.

But when Hadi moves his family to Howland full time after the September 11 terrorist attacks, claiming to have inside information that another attack on the city is imminent, he sets in motion a chain of events that brings the town’s simmering class conflicts to the boiling point. After Howland’s first selectman — essentially, the mayor — suddenly dies, Hadi volunteers for the job, promising the cash-strapped town he will work for free and buffer its flagging finances from his own coffers. The appeal is irresistible for Howland’s struggling residents. But what the locals fail to realize is that Hadi’s open checkbook comes with serious strings attached.

Dee says Hadi was inspired by a real-life hedge fund manager who briefly relocated to a vacation home after September 11, though he’s mum on who that is. But every other detail of the character is drawn from a broader pastiche of New York’s financial elite.

Dee lived in New York until age five and then moved with his family to Connecticut. Although they fell on hard times financially, he continued his upper-crust education, at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Yale University, and later moved back to New York and raised a daughter there. He has a number of friends who work in finance; his Pulitzer Prize–nominated 2010 novel The Privileges, about a private equity executive, occupies the same milieu.

“You hang out with these guys who are like you but fundamentally move through the world in a different way than you do,” he says. “People who occupy the walk of life that Hadi does are endlessly fascinating because they are a source of mystery.”

That proximity to titans of finance enabled Dee to draw a pitch-perfect portrait of a hedge fund manager, down to the sleeveless Patagonia fleece pullover, blunt personality — and relentless desire for control.

“Hadi’s a guy who’s got a certain self-confident air,” Dee explains. “But he also strikes [central character Mark Firth] the first time they meet as almost borderline autistic — he’s not concerned with ingratiating himself the way that most people are. He doesn’t befriend the people in Howland. He loves the place, but the people are something that he studies.”

For a few weeks after he becomes first selectman, Hadi is a hands-off leader who rarely bothers to show up at town hall, preferring simply to pay for things when they break. But what initially seems like benign paternalism gradually morphs into a kind of authoritarianism. He installs security cameras on Main Street, flirts with the idea of a town curfew, and proposes a ban on cigarette sales, stoking waves of anger and resentment from some longtime residents.

It’s impossible to read The Locals without thinking of the ascendance of Donald Trump, a billionaire who had never held office before his shocking election to the U.S. presidency in 2016. But Dee points to Michael Bloomberg, Steve Forbes, and Ross Perot — all billionaires who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to shake up the political status quo — as inspirations for the plot.

“What I was thinking about mostly is the American idea that our best hope lies in being governed by the exorbitantly rich,” he says. “A rich person is suspect, but a really, really rich person acquires a sort of moral purity because of their success and evidently because they can’t be bought.”

That theory may be put to the test in Connecticut next year. Just last month, David Stemerman, co-founder of hedge fund Conatus Capital Management, said he would close his firm to explore a run for governor of the state in 2018.