In the world of children’s books, author Geoff Rodkey’s books stand out as quirky and filled with fascinating characters. His adult novel, “Lights Out in Lincolnwood,” is filled with characters who are not quirky or comical, but rather all-too-real and all too relatable. The Altman family seems to have it all. Dan was a very successful attorney, a partner at his firm, when he chucked it all to take a gamble writing for a television series. Luckily, he was successful at that, but when we first meet him, he’s struggling to think of new ideas for the show. We also meet Jen, his wife. She was once also very successful, but for several reasons decided to stay at home and raise their two children. Max and Chloe, those very children, are also successful in their own rights. Chloe is a talented tennis player, applying to impressive schools, but her anxiety is commensurate with her application to top schools, her upcoming semi-finals in tennis, the essays she needs to write for early admission to a top college. Max, on the other hand, is not athletic at all. He shows great promise because of his creativity and at his summer camp created a film that was a hit. However, Max is being bullied and has become addicted to vaping. Addiction runs in the family makeup. Jen is coming to the unpleasant realization that she is an alcoholic, something she has kept from Dan, but which the kids are completely aware of.
How often do we say, “The husband is the last to know”? Or have the wife be the one who is clueless? In this case, we can see how it happens, and we learn from Rodkey’s careful narrative, from each character’s point of view, how messed up their family is. But it’s nothing that is all that different from many families. Neither is the suburb they live in, which could be almost any fairly affluent suburb where there are nice homes, nicer homes, and mansions. In fact, one of the homes in the fictional Lincolnwood belongs to an actual billionaire. And it’s that billionaire who first guesses what is going on.
When Dan gets on the train to work, he crosses paths with his ultra-wealthy acquaintance. When the train stops suddenly, all their phones die, and a plane crashes nearby, causing a panic on the train. Pete Blackwell, the billionaire acquaintance, decides to run the eight miles home, leaving his now-useless iPad on the ground. The cause of the disaster is never shared, and that makes sense. When all devices that use electricity to run — think cars, computers, phones, lights, pumps — don’t work, there’s no way to get news. There is no radio, no internet, no way to know, from their suburban town, what is happening in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Europe, Asia. Anywhere. They must all survive as best they can.
And that’s the situation Rodkey presents in the four days following this unexplained event. What happens in this small suburb. Who ends up with the power (not the electric kind). And how they get it. Rodkey explains that he wrote this novel in 2019, before COVID threatened our society, and perhaps more importantly, our toilet paper supply. He got some things right. There’s a reason the sale of guns exploded in 2020: people were frightened. And when people get frightened, they want to protect themselves. Were we worried about what Rodkey presents in this story? Was this a near-prophetic story of a world gone crazy?
No matter how you choose to read it, you’ll appreciate Rodkey’s fine writing. He has an ability to take even the most unpleasant character trait of one of the four Altmans and make it sympathetic. While we want to shake Jen as we watch, horrified and yet fascinated, as she continues to drink throughout the crisis, we can also sympathize. Chloe, who seems to have it all, ends up learning an important lesson about friendship, family, and stupid teenage boys. Max, also, learns an essential truth — when the chips are down, the love of a dog can help almost anything. And Dan, the guy who was clueless about his wife’s drinking problem for years and years, learns that when it comes down to it, his wife might just be the toughest of the Altman family.
Don’t expect either a happy ending or a sad ending. No one dies, including the dog (if we don’t count the many planes that crashed the day of the event). But Rodkey’s ending will make some want to throttle him because (spoiler alert) there IS no ending. He leaves the future to us to figure out.
Rodkey explained to me, about the book, “…I was also trying to write a comedy, primarily about the disconnect between our day-to-day preoccupations and the basic imperatives of human survival (food, water, safety/security), which most of us are free to ignore because we’ve outsourced those basic needs to complex systems over which we have no control. It’s kind of like a Looney Tunes cartoon in which Wile E. Coyote chases the Roadrunner off a cliff. The comedy exists in the moments after he’s gone off the cliff, but before the force of gravity takes over.”
Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by Harper Perennial, the publisher, for review purposes.