Scandal fractures a Washington, D.C., family in Karen Olsson’s endlessly intriguing but overlong second novel, “All the Houses.”
Part history, part psychological study, it is in every way a Washington book, offering an insider’s look at the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s – which, although it originated in the Reagan White House, is, to protagonist Helen Atherton, “ just a small province in that country of the unsaid.”
A country so “unsaid,” in fact, that Helen’s family has spent the decades since Iran-Contra either in denial, or pretending not to notice the extent of the harm caused the Athertons by her father’s involvement in the whole White House-centered morass.
But now Helen, in her early teens at the time of the imbroglio, is not only 34 but is a writer who wants to chronicle the series of events that brought down her father and others, some guilty, some not, some (including her father) in that murky area in between. Helen, in other words, wants to confront the elephant in the Atherton living room.
It is at this delicious juncture that Olsson begins the languidly paced “All the Houses,” a novel set in two eras – then and nearly now – with Helen, the middle of three daughters of Tim Atherton, recalling the Saturday morning in 1986 when she opened the door of the family home to a pair of FBI agents:
“…I answered the door. The taller of the two men had a briefcase, his bare red fingers curled around the handle, and the shorter one was carrying flattened file boxes under one arm. They said nothing at first, as though each were waiting for the other to begin, or maybe they expected me to speak up. I didn’t say ‘Yes’ or ‘Can I help you’ but just waited. I already knew them to be adversaries…”
Olsson’s observational skills, particularly her attention to detail, are what propel “All the Houses.” They not only give the book the real-time feel of nonfiction – but make a reader believe every word. Thus, when Helen’s inner journey takes her, 20 years later, from her life in L.A. (as a struggling screenwriter) back to D.C. and the house she grew up in, we are right there with her.
“Ever since I was a teenager,” she mulls, “I’d made my own special thorn out of Washington and its faults. The segregation, the small-mindedness, the wonks. The ‘Where do you work?’ The acronyms in response. The weight of institutions and of so much self-inflation. The blazers, the pearl necklaces, the bow ties, the stuffed shirts, the eager-beaver (BS).The rules and regulations. The thickets of righteous nonprofits. The low, drab buildings and the alphabet streets, the statuary, the Potomac, the traffic circles, the Metro, the Tourmobiles…”
Helen is “home” overtly because Tim Atherton is recuperating from a heart attack. Covertly, she wants to understand – and write about – what really happened all those years ago that spelled the demise of the Atherton family unit. Her parents are now divorced, her father still in the old D.C. house, her mother living in Maryland. Her older sister, Courtney, has remained in the D.C. area (but is newly married and uber-busy working at one of those “righteous nonprofits”) while her younger sister, Maggie, is off in New York, teaching English at Hunter College, her specialty early Tudor drama.
In early 2005 (the later setting of the book), Maggie comes to D.C. – and the sisters gather at Courtney’s where Helen tells them she is still working on a Washington screenplay. “It’s the story of our family,” she says.
“Our family?” asks Courtney. “Our family doesn’t exist anymore … I mean, you two will always be my sisters. Dad will always be our dad, and Mom is … what she is, but they’re divorced. We’re grown up. The thing you’re talking about, that ended years ago…”
Courtney goes on, dismissing Iran-Contra: “…there’s no mystery about what happened to Dad back then…He (messed) up. He was too trusting, he went along with something he shouldn’t have, that was not legal. So he lost that job, and then he went to work for Intel-com and made a whole lot of money. I mean, boo hoo. He and everyone he worked with are lucky they didn’t go to jail! Honestly, I don’t see why that would be something you’d want to dig up.”
But dig up Helen does, in the process giving us not only a recap of Iran-Contra but a psychological surmise of the 1980s mindset of a Tim Atherton, too timid or too respectful of his superiors to blow them in or, as Helen puts it:
“To this day I don’t know whether to think of him as a coconspirator or a complicit bystander or just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Complicit bystander would fit Tim Atherton best here, the whole affair, as Helen imagines writing about it, brought down to: “The main players were a few bureaucrats and a gang of freelance old hands, drawn to the rush of counterrevolution and back-channel deals. Their foes were communists and hostage takers, not to mention State Department guys…(and) the U.S. Congress. They had encryption devices … They had secure telephones. They met with middle men and foreign mercenaries in foreign cities … They got carried away with it all, and they almost got away with it all.”
Tim Atherton is portrayed here as kind and caring, a bit sad and much too eager to please. Olsson paints a number of tender, telling scenes of Helen interacting with her father – who narrates a small but affecting Iran-Contra section of the novel.
But if Olsson meant this to be a father-daughter book, it is far more a Helen Courtney offering and it is with this that “All the Houses” goes amiss – for Courtney is a creature of such contradiction that, aside from her acting out in the wake of the scandal, a reader is hard put to understand why she continues to push Helen’s buttons. Plus, Olsson devotes countless unnecessary pages to Courtney’s and Helen’s high school days. It is all too much and contributes little to Olsson’s otherwise sound storyline.
Tim Atherton, of course, is fictional (but probably based on someone who will be recognizable to the Washington cognoscenti) while many others in Olsson’s accounting are not (Oliver North and Robert McFarlane among them). A “Jodi Dentoff” is cast in the role of a Washington Post reporter who has a voice, Olsson writes, “dipped in butter and ash” and who, one suspects, is a thinly-veiled version of an actual D.C. reporter of the time.
Then there are “all the houses.” Olsson takes the title of her book from a Franz Kafka quote she uses as preface. And there are all sorts of other houses here – including the White House; the old Atherton homestead; the ostentatious home Courtney now lives in; the manse that once belonged to Dick Mitchell, Tim Atherton’s best friend, a fictional former deputy assistant secretary of state … not to mention the houses within, the houses all but Helen have kept hidden for twenty years.
Plus, Olsson offers a wonderful denouement with Helen concluding sagely that “when you write about your family, it’s not for their benefit.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.
All the Houses
By Karen Olsson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
402 pages, $27