High Priced Urban Fantasy: Restless Dreams of Real Estate

Hunting in Harlem , by Mat Johnson. Bloomsbury, 283 pages, $23.95.

The Quality of Life Report, by Meghan Daum. Viking, 309 pages, $24.95

New Yorkers will not tolerate weak coffee, panty lines or restaurants with low Zagat ratings. But when it comes to the state of our homes-if some sinkhole studio can be called a home-we’re ready to endure the most miserable privations. Last year, I rented a railroad apartment with a broken refrigerator, no bathroom sink and only a thin gauze curtain shielding my roommate’s coughs, snores and (frequent) cries of passion from mine. A few blocks away, a friend suffered through summer in a windowless loft above a booming rehearsal space, while another friend, in an illegal sublet, had to sneak visitors past his landlord.

But without dues-paying apartments and the escape fantasies they engender, what would we dream about? “Quality of life,” in this stir-crazy city, is a chunk of real estate somewhere else, anywhere else (as long as it’s in Manhattan-or maybe Brooklyn). Cabin fever fuels this town. Work hard, snag the right spouse, and someday you’ll trade that rat trap for a “classic six” with corner views. Better to prolong the chase than move to the suburbs. In a nation built on aspiration, where homesteading was invented and the condo perfected, New York is the American quintessence.

In Meghan Daum’s The Quality of Life Report and Mat Johnson’s Hunting in Harlem -two very different novels by two young, photogenic writers-two more New Yorkers join the jockeying quest for quality of life, cultivating real-estate fantasies that become both markers of selfhood and harbingers of doom. Message to reader: Stick with your walk-up! Whether you’re planning on fleeing to the plains or colonizing Harlem’s brownstones, grand reinvention schemes bring nothing but trouble.

Ms. Daum’s heroine, Lucinda Trout, reports on thong underwear and takeout sushi for New York Up Early , a local television show that compels her to lead the sort of navel-contemplating, cosmo-swilling Sex and the City lifestyle that has fueled the growth of “urban women’s fiction” as a publishing category. The Quality of Life Report seems, at first, like a particularly well-written example of the genre-Ms. Daum, whose first book was a collection of essays called My Misspent Youth (2001), started in women’s magazines. But the novel veers into something stranger when Lucinda visits Prairie City, U.S.A., to research a story on methamphetamine, “the dangerous drug that’s sweeping the not-so-innocent heartland.” Charmed by the “Willa Cather-novel,” “Sissy Spacek-movie” country and a newfound sense of usefulness-Lucinda’s interview subjects treat her like a hard-hitting investigative journalist, not someone who pronounces that “scones are the new muffin”-she requests a transfer to Prairie City. From there, she will file the “Quality of Life Report,” a series of bulletins on her new Midwestern home, “far from the cramped quarters and moral compromises of New York.”

A few subway stops uptown from Lucinda’s studio on West 94th, Cedric Snowden confronts the cramped quarters and moral compromises of Harlem. Snowden, the nihilist at the center of Mr. Johnson’s Hunting in Harlem , went to jail after accidentally slugging his father, a civil-rights activist, to death. Now released, he’s in New York at the behest of Horizon Realty, sponsors of the Second Chance Program, which promises a brownstone to the ex-con who contributes most to their neighborhood-reshapingefforts.When Snowden lands a “special projects” beat, cleaning out the apartments of the recently deceased, he wonders at his new neighborhood’s high accidental death rate. Snowden soon notices the strange connections between each death, like the fact that each closet he cleans contains a skeleton: a trunk full of stolen wallets in one apartment, a barrel of sawed-off shotguns or a stash of child pornography in another. As Horizon Realty rents these recently vacated apartments to upstanding black professionals hand-picked to rejuvenate Harlem, Snowden begins to suspect that his employer’s brand of urban renewal comes at a vicious cost.

Back in Prairie City, Lucinda meets a scruffy Brad Pitt look-alike named Mason Clay and shacks up with him in a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of town. But something’s off: The bursts of energy that allow Mason to reshingle the roof and start a petunia garden are fueled by meth, the same drug that brought Lucinda to Prairie City in the first place. In charting Lucinda’s slow progress from professional observer of others’ problems to a bona fide Person With Problems, Ms. Daum manages to avoid a chiding story-of-the-week tone; instead, she draws the reader so deeply into Lucinda’s world that her choices seem inevitable. Meet a sexy guy, find a farm for rent-who wouldn’t sign the lease? But when winter strands Lucinda on the farm, her careless gamble becomes a snare. Awakening in the freezing cold at dawn to find that Mason is gone and his daughter has wet the bed, Lucinda realizes that “the scene in my house resembled notes in a caseworker file.”

For Snowden, in the northern reaches of Manhattan, life is stranger than a caseworker’s wildest imaginings. Like Lucinda, he’s an outsider, with a personality more tuned to impassive observation than active involvement. But he, too, becomes pulled almost by accident into his new neighborhood. As Harlem’s petty villains continue to drop off, Snowden finds ways to rationalize Horizon’s malefactions. Maybe a take-no-prisoners approach to gentrification isn’t so bad, he figures-until the threat shifts closer to home. As the ensuing scenes demonstrate, when it comes to showering punishments on his characters, Mr. Johnson (like Ms. Daum) shows little mercy. Both these novels set a wisecracking comic tone and then descend into something darker, each a Book of Job for the restless New Yorker.

Ms. Daum’s story depends on open sky and howling wind, the prairie’s careless expanse, while Mr. Johnson conjures up a murderously claustrophobic inner-city of “buildings and people crushed together.” Mr. Johnson’s Harlem is all African-American, save a few sly references to our “first black president,” Bill Clinton; Ms. Daum’s white-bread Prairie City counts “perhaps 154 African-Americans,” nine of whom work for the Prairie City Coalition for Diversity. Meditations on geography, identity and the link between the two lead these writers to similar conclusions. Both create itinerant characters motivated by a longing for “real life”-the authentic, uncorrupted existence that only strangers seem to enjoy. And both authors understand how much this notion of “real life” depends on advertising and bleeds into illusion.

Lucinda’s apple-pie fantasy persists even as her life crumbles. She’s contemplating a proposal for a book called Inspirations from the Heartland even as a strung-out Mason goes AWOL from Christmas dinner. (“You’re trying to sell your life. I’m trying to live my life,” he roars.) Meanwhile, the characters in Hunting in Harlem discover the slippage between the glossy real-estate brochure and the bloody truth it conceals. Mr. Johnson set his first novel, Drop (2000), in an ad agency, and the Horizon brass speak in slogans and market-tested catch phrases. The author’s satirical instincts are razor-sharp: At a glitzy welcome-to-Harlem party staffed by servers in African warrior garb, Snowden and his boss plan an upcoming hit. Our hero seeks escapist release in best-sellers by Bo Shareef, whose fluffy novels about Harlem have titles like Shuckin’ n’ Jivin’ Down Lenox and Datz What I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout .

Both Snowden and Lucinda try to shake their outsider status and adapt to their new milieu. Lucinda gets fake nails and goes to Hollywood Tan. Gun-hating Snowden shoots his way out of a drug lord’s house. But both characters, seeking neatly repackaged lives, run headfirst into the complexities and “moral compromises” that chased Lucinda out of Manhattan in the first place. Snowden learns that neighborhoods don’t transform themselves overnight; the bad guys he’s purging from Harlem have nothing on the bad guys orchestrating the purge. Lucinda realizes that a fondness for wind-swept grassland isn’t enough to make you a Midwesterner. Settling down won’t settle anything, it seems; to find that authentic self, you’ll need more than a new ZIP code.

Lucinda finds her “quality of life” only when she lets go of her self-scrutinizing search. Sipping an Orange Julius at the mall triggers an epiphany: For the first time in her overanalyzed life, she realizes that she can patronize a food court without “a complete crisis of purpose and identity.” Snowden’s quest is more complex, the outcome more disillusioning. He finds that the “price for utopia” includes a piece of his soul.

Meghan Daum’s novel makes for an affecting read, but Mat Johnson’s messier contribution will haunt the reader longer. Both books prove a simple truth: Reinvention requires sacrifice. In a city of breezily adopted neighborhoods, these authors offer an unvarnished look at life beyond the broker’s fee. And they remind you that when it comes to finding yourself, there’s no place like home-with or without a bathroom sink.

Darby Saxbe lives in Brooklyn with five roommates. Next fall, she will enroll in UCLA’s Ph.D. program in clinical psychology.

High Priced Urban Fantasy: Restless Dreams of Real Estate