The Pleasure in Drowning on a Carousel

Joe McGinniss Jr. spins a dangerous romance in Carousel Court

Most of us with any real dating experience have heard this little gem of wisdom: Trust is the most important thing in a relationship. It’s too bad that Nick and Phoebe Maguire, the husband and wife at the center of Joe McGinniss Jr.’s Carousel Court, aren’t most people because they needed to hear those words — no seriously, they really needed to hear them.

When we meet Nick and Phoebe, they are in Boston, struggling to achieve their tiny version of the American Dream. They hear news of the booming housing market in Southern California, so, with the possibilities of success buzzing in their ears, they agree to head West. Nick has a new job lined up. Phoebe can finally escape her past — an affair and a drug-related accident involving the couple’s son, Jackson.

They’ll have a new start; everything will be great.

If only it could be that easy. Nick, on the day before leaving for California, finds out that his promised job has caved. Still, they go. There’s more bad news: their new house isn’t exactly like they’d imagined: “And there’s the house. Bigger than it should be. It’s not on fire, though Nick wishes briefly it were, because what it is, is worse. It’s underwater, sinking fast, has the three of them by the ankles, and isn’t letting go.” The underwater house becomes the grand metaphor that exists throughout Carousel Court. The Maguires are sinking.

Quickly, the married pair adjusts to their new living conditions, and their lives go back to how they were before the move. Nick burns through their money after concocting an idea to flip all of the drowned houses in the neighborhood, and Phoebe, unable to escape drugs, alcohol, or her lustful feelings for her ex, returns back to her old habits.

As the worlds that Nick and Phoebe live in drift apart, their relationship crumbles. Nick is only “playing the role of concerned, engaged husband,” and Phoebe can’t even stand to touch the man she married: “Nick takes Phoebe’s hand, which surprises her. She checks, but he’s not looking at her. His skin feels callused, and he has a piece of moleskin wrapped around the meaty part below the pinkie where he cut himself at work. She likes it when he takes her hand at unexpected times. She usually feels tension release. Not tonight, though. Not lately.”

Their feelings escalate into something more than dislike. The two turn on one another in vicious form. When Nick asks Phoebe if she’s cooking dinner, he quickly adds in a follow-up question: “Are you planning to poison me?” Later, he asks her, “Do you trust me?” Her reply is bitter, and coldly direct, saying, “Of course not.” The cruelness continues, as McGinnis gives Nick more vicious lines:

“You’re a nightmare.”

“Can’t stand to be around you. Violent sick inside to share the same space.”

Carousel Court is a gritty, raw novel that will have readers recalling the icy relationships found in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut. McGinniss’ work is built on layers of tension and dark turns that, at times, surpass the twisted works of his contemporaries.

Technology and addiction take center stage in Carousel Court. Nick and Phoebe both send secret texts while the other is in the same room. It’s as if one is tempting the other to ask — to check. Phoebe craves her emails almost as much as she does her Klonopin. She puts herself and her son at danger on multiple occasions because she can’t live any other way. She’s consumed. Nick’s consumed. They’re both overloaded in the hyperactive society in which they live.

The intensity of Carousel Court reaches a point where the novel could easily be labeled as a work of horror. In one particularly frightening scene that recalls a Revelation-worthy plague, Phoebe stands in a field and cicadas encircle her. They scream. But she appears at ease — possibly even comforted.

McGinniss deserves a lot of credit for handling the darkness so well. He never seems to overdo it. When he gets close to the edge, he adds in just the right amount of humor. Phoebe begins a text exchange with Nick:

“I think somebody’s dead and floating in the pool.”

“??”

“Sorry. Autocorrect. Something’s dead.”

“Saw that. Will fish it out when I get home.”

They are so far gone from happiness (and even relative normalcy) that a possible dead corpse in their pool gets nothing more than a few question marks. I couldn’t help but laugh. But then I cried.

I cried because what else can you do when you realize that a person — or a marriage — has drowned right in front of you?

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