A wealthy neighborhood suffers a series of break-ins. Nobody’s hurt. This seems barely worth an item on page five of the local newspaper, let alone a novel. But Oak Park, Ill., the setting for Rachel Louise Snyder’s smart debut novel, “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” is different. It’s a place unusually attuned to the hand-wringing over race, class and security that a break-in can induce.
Oak Park is best known as the longtime home of Frank Lloyd Wright and birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, who reputedly disowned the Chicago suburb as a place of “broad lawns and narrow minds.” Less famously, it’s also home to a long-running experiment in racial diversity. The predominantly white, affluent town abuts Chicago’s predominantly black, poor Austin neighborhood, and for decades the suburb has promoted efforts to increase integration.
It’s a flawed system. “It’s not like the black people in my building are chillin’ with the whites,” a teenage boy tells Mary, who happens to be home when the burglars enter. She’s high on ecstasy and oblivious to the crime, though, which is just one of a handful of myopia metaphors Snyder deploys: One victim suffers from vision problems, and the street that’s victimized is called Ilios Lane — that is, Troy.
Snyder cycles through various Ilios Lane households, which include a family of Cambodian immigrants, a restaurateur who pretends a French background and Mary’s parents: mom Susan, who works on behalf of the town’s Diversity Assurance rental program, and hothead dad Michael, who’s eager to point fingers. He has company: Interludes excerpt neighborhood e-mail list discussions, and Snyder has a fine ear for the “I’m not racist, but … ” blithering that tends to fill them. (“I like a diverse population as much as anyone here, but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think this was perpetrated by at least SOME west siders.”)
“What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” builds to a pat climax, its characters nudged toward an ideological scrum. But Snyder has mastered the appropriate tone for this suburban foofaraw. Michael’s comic, busy-beaver overreaction (“What we need is a task force”) keeps the novel from devolving into earnest sanctimony. But racial diversity in the suburbs deserves better than another wan satire of what gets mockingly dismissed online as “first-world problems,” and Snyder knows it. In one keenly observed interlude, an apartment manager writes an honest blog post about what she’s seen in her building, particularly “the staggering difference between standards of living of those in rehabbed [white-occupied] units versus those not.”
Snyder knows exactly how successful such straight talk will be in sparking conversation. Not at all: The apartment manager is fired. Snyder’s novel may — and deserves to — do better.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix.