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Slope writer’s new novel sets unhappy family in Saratoga

The Brooklyn Paper

There couldn’t be a better time of year to read Lisa Selin Davis’ debut novel, set in the upstate summer resort town of Saratoga Springs, than the lazy days of August.

The Park Slope author told GO Brooklyn, "[The book] is exaggerated but it comes from my lifelong obsession with Saratoga - which I’m over now. The town became this mythic place to me when I was writing it, so when I went back, it was, oh, it’s just a town."

Davis, 33, had visited the town each summer during her childhood and appreciated the proximity of the homes and businesses to one another and the resulting feeling of "community," which she believed to be lacking from the lonely "suburban sub-developments" where she lived at other times of the year.

"I felt like [’Belly’] was a love letter to the town," said Davis about the book which was published by Little, Brown and Company last month.

Saratoga Springs is the hometown of the title character, William "Belly" O’Leary, who returns after years in prison. Before the 59-year-old drunk was jailed for gambling, he owned a bar, had connections in city hall, and was involved in a passionate affair.

When the self-absorbed philanderer returns, he is forced to see his life through the unflattering gaze of his abused daughters (whom he must now turn to for food, shelter and money) and to come to terms with the fact that his old flame, Loretta, is a heartless femme fatale.

"He had been a somebody who’s now a nobody. And I was very, very curious about what that would be like and how someone with a huge ego like that would negotiate this world," said Davis, in a telephone interview from a writers colony in Ithaca. "Honestly, I’m interested in how anyone can think differently than the way I do? We all walk around thinking we’re right."

She paints an utterly riveting, honest picture of Belly’s life - and his bad behavior. And it’s a wonder that the young, female writer could have so realistically imagined the inner world of this bigoted, Archie Bunker-esque, middle-aged man.

Although "Belly" features a character, Bonnie, who is a journalist (Davis writes for BKLYN magazine and The Brooklyn Papers and teaches creative writing at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute), the author said the character that most reveals her views of life is the level-headed city planner, Margie.

"But my brother said, ’you’re not fat, we’re really not Jewish and you dropped out of urban planning school,’" Davis recalled with a laugh.

In stark contrast to cool-headed Margie, Belly’s fear and rage bubble over in ever-changing Saratoga Springs. Even his bar was replaced with a gourmet coffee shop.

"[Belly’s] concerns about what’s happening at the urban planning level are very much my concerns," said Davis. "The preoccupation with the book is taking a real place with a strong sense of itself and turning it into anywhere.

"I see that happening all over Brooklyn, and as much as I’m shocked and saddened by it, I’m over there at Target myself," she confessed. "This transformation of the Brooklyn skyline is frightening I think it has a psychological impact."

Yet, for the characters in Davis’ novel, the changing face of Saratoga Springs is not an entirely bad or good phenomenon.

"I feel like there’s a parallel lesson in that. What I’m personally thinking about as I get older and settle down, is that I miss my crazy, adventurous life so much, but I can’t handle it [anymore]," said Davis. "You can’t have the old town without the corruption. You have to make your choice. It’s gonna be cleaned up and nice or it’s going to be seedy and you’re going to put up with the negative aspect of the seediness. There’s a lesson for us in there."

 

"Belly" (Little, Brown and Company, $23.95) is available at BookCourt [163 Court St. at Dean Street, (718) 875-3677] in Cobble Hill and online at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

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