Patrick Flanery's excellent second novel describes a similar arc as Tolstoy's parabolic short story How Much Land Does a Man Need? In Tolstoy's cautionary tale, a peasant-turned-landowner can't believe his luck when he is offered as much land as he wants for little cost, but his greed and over-exertions get the better of him and he goes on to pay the ultimate price. Flanery's novel also has land-ownership at its centre, together with the downfall of Paul Krovik, a property developer in America's Midwest, who "overstretched and overspent and overpaid" with his housing project and is now not only bitter but vengeful.
Tolstoy's misguided hero is crushed by his dream (and as he is buried the story's witty answer to its titular question is "Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed"). Krovik is a fighter and stays alive, but rather than retreat from his ruin, he holes himself up in a self-constructed bunker beneath the house he lost in a foreclosure sale, and from there proceeds to terrorise the new owners - or "intruders". What follows is a disturbing and ingenious literary thriller that keeps us gripped and thinking.
As with Absolution, Flanery's slickly assured debut, Fallen Land flits from past to present and is told from the perspective of more than one character. At the beginning, Krovik is in a high-security prison, for what, we don't know. He is visited by Louise Washington, in Krovik's eyes a friend and former neighbour. Flanery then branches off and sets the bulk of the novel in the past, returning only to the present for the novel's coda. The past, then, explores Krovik's crime; the present reveals his fate.
The past in Fallen Land is peopled by three groups of characters. Krovik is a man who, after the failure of his business, has lost everything, including, it would appear, his sanity. His neighbours have sued him for shoddy, half-finished work, debt collectors want his head, and his wife has departed with his children and taken out a restraining order. He vows to get his children back and to finish building the model community he started - "a rational utopia where neighbours look after one another without recourse to the state". For the moment, though, he must remain alone in his bunker and accept that he has created "something closer to a landscape of nightmare".
Louise, it transpires, was his neighbour but never his friend. In her lyrical, first-person accounts we learn the land is "my people's promised land" and has been in her family for generations - her great-grandparents "born in bonds" and her sharecropping grandparents, who inherited the land from a white landowner, in freedom. But Louise has had to sell to Krovik to survive. Now she lives on the land as an "outlaw", appalled at "brute pillager" Krovik and his tree massacres, impervious to taunts of "witch" from cruel children, and forever connected to the land's "secret, sliding ways".
The last strand is that of the Noailles family, who swap city life in Boston for the suburbs of Dolores Woods and, more specifically, Krovik's house. Nathaniel and Julia try to settle in, but their son Copley insists that he has seen a fourth person in the basement and heard him prowling the house at night.
He is ignored, his claims dismissed as the fantasies of a feverishly overwrought mind. When a sinister phase begins in which furniture is rearranged and property damaged, Copley is blamed and becomes a worry, a child with behavioural problems. Louise is drafted in as his teacher-governess and takes his side when he pleads innocent to each fresh wave of destruction.