Audrey Benton and Theo Gorski are an artsy couple in their 30s from blue-collar backgrounds living in Bushwick during the era of the Occupy Wall Street protests. When an old acquaintance of Audrey's disappears under mysterious circumstances, the couple must confront a dangerous secret from Audrey's past and a series of escalating crises.
It’s refreshing...that David Goodwillie’s very good new novel, Kings County, depicts [hipsters] with genuine, unmitigated sympathy and good-fellowship, as if, in spite of their fashionable lifestyles, they are as fully human as anyone else ... remarkably enough they are more concerned about being kind to one another than following the latest culinary or sartorial trends ... the youngish people who populate Kings County are thoughtful and appealing ... It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered a character like Theo in contemporary fiction. His bookishness and uncompromising, unabashedly serious taste make life harder on a practical level, but these qualities are also treated as something to be respected, even admired, rather than mocked as snobby or elitist ... The revelation of [a] hidden chapter of Audrey’s past...becomes the engine of the novel’s plot. It makes for a suspenseful read. After the first chapter or two, the pages of Kings County begin to turn quickly. But suspense plots have certain requirements, some of which conflict with or simply crowd out the quieter imperatives of character-driven fiction ... In a mystery novel...the characters’ relationships generally evolve in tandem with the plot, becoming strained as the mystery ratchets up in intensity and then resolving on cue. Kings County hews pretty closely to this formula, wrapping everything up a little too neatly. On the other hand, Goodwillie’s characters are so likable—so sincere in their affections and so decent in their moral decision-making, in spite of their decadent lifestyles—that it’s hard to begrudge them their pat resolutions ... Goodwillie is also a stylish writer, smart and witty without being a show-off.
David Goodwillie leans heavily on nostalgic sentimentality to carry his literary mystery novel, Kings County, but the suspense-driven plot flounders ... [Theo's father] is a one-dimensional cliche of red America, a caricature rather than a character ... The flashbacks and disjointed narrative timeline bog down the pacing. Goodwillie leads us down numerous pathways with backstories, but few seem relevant. Theo’s personal history with his father sidetracks the story ... These backstories, like the protest, are essential to the novel’s aspirations of class critique, but actually feel more like set dressing. Goodwillie is striving to write a class-conscious novel disguised as a mystery, but neither comes through clearly ... Despite the missteps, Goodwillie’s mystery holds unexpected twists. Audrey’s secrets create tension with Theo, and drive suspense for the reader. The wandering narrative serves as misdirection to keep us guessing. Goodwillie doles out information sluggishly, only providing details when absolutely necessary. The plot has a lot of inertia. It churns slowly at first, but once it chugs forward, it rushes towards the conclusion. Nevertheless, much of the novel feels like unnecessary filling. There is great affection for hipster Brooklyn, and a sense that Goodwillie has written a love letter to this particular time and place, even if at moments this is detrimental to the novel ... The novel is paying homage to a rapidly vanishing scene, trapping it in amber for future generations to marvel at. This is a nostalgia trip ... We are transported to this time and place, but setting is not enough to carry the novel. Kings County offers a nostalgic reflection loosely wrapped around a not very suspenseful mystery.
While this mystery falls flat, the more compelling puzzle is what exactly happened to Audrey that would put her in danger. Goodwillie’s setting is vivid and his characters rich, with flashbacks fleshing out their backstories. Those who like literary, character-driven fiction with a strong sense of place, think Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs (2014), will enjoy this coming-of-age story with elements of romance and mystery.