MADISON — Is it Branford? Maybe Guilford? Could be Clinton — nope, definitely Madison.
Reading Nick Mancuso’s new novel, “Fever,” it is hard not to try and guess which leafy Shoreline town he drew similarities from in his debut piece of noir fiction.
Just days after the Magnolia Press paperback ($13.99) was released Aug. 27, the 2008 graduate of Daniel Hand High School sat down and talked about the writing his first novel. He insists Dorset, Conn., where “Fever” takes place, is a fictional town, a composite of many along the Shoreline.
“When the phone rang, he was staring out past his television, out into the gloom of a rainstorm,” writes Mancuso on the second page. “The ground needed it; it’d been dry the last few weeks, and the lawns on Staniford Drive looked terrible.
“It didn’t fit with the neighborhood Didn’t fit with the whole town of Dorset, Connecticut. When he was growing up in the suburban town just a few miles eastward of New Haven, his street, Staniford Drive, was a cul-de-sac of four large McMansions, and one little rundown cape on the corner.”
Mancuso, who now lives in Kennebunkport, Maine, with his wife, Lisa, grew up in Madison. After graduating from DHHS, the 29-year-old continued his studies as a Literary and Cultural Studies major at Bryant University and received a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Fairfield University.
He explains that Dorset could be any New England town, but admits that it was that little cape on the corner that was his family homestead.
“There is a number of small towns in Connecticut that resemble Dorset,” says the author, sitting in downtown Madison just hours before a local reading.
Fever is the name of a drug that plays a central part in the book, but also the feeling Mansuco remembers of the summer of 2014, when the sweltering heat wouldn’t let up. The only respite in “Fever” is a dip in a backyard swimming pool, a nice cold drink or a cool, air-conditioned home.
Rachel Basch, author of “The Listener” and one of Mancuso’s professors at Fairfield University, says that like any New England town, life may not be what it seems.
“We glimpse the surfaces of everybody’s lives,” says Basch. “Very seldom do we go beneath that surface level and so we make assumptions and we make a lot of assumptions based on class and wealth.
“If someone has a perfect one, we think it goes perfect all the way down.
“When I read Nick’s (book) and he has that made up town he’s getting at the idea of what it’s like, rather than a geographical truth it’s an emotional truth and a political truth.”
Mancuso echoes this when talking about his book.
“So, it’s really about these places we know and these spaces that we know,” he says. “It’s a uniquely Connecticut thing, these spaces of affluence and beauty, too. They are beautiful places.”
Yet, underneath this beauty and serenity lies infidelity, drug and alcohol abuse, racism and for many in Mancusos’s book, living life on the edge.
“I wanted to create a feeling of anxiousness, especially as we reach that part in the novel because that’s when everything unravels,” the writer says, as he talks about a sexual encounter between two of the characters.
“A feeling of deep unease,” he adds. “I wanted to deploy a real feeling of discomfort and unease. It’s just that event that’s happening, that’s when everything really unravels and the tragedy and the death begins.”
It’s actually the second sentence of the novel that foretells some of this tragedy.
“Approximately one month before he would be lowered into the ground during a small, sparsely attended funeral service, Neil Testa’s mother called to tell him his father had died,” he writes.
Neil would be one of four neighbors that die in this book in different situations, different locations and for different reasons, but all untimely.
It is this intrigue that drew Madison resident and family friend Monica Piombino into this debut novel.
“You see these perfect families and you think ‘Oh, my gosh, everything is so perfect. Why is my life not this perfect?’” says Piombino, after reading the book. “You just don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.”
Piombino says Nick Mancuso is very much like his father, Madison resident Rick Mancuso.
“He can command a room,” she says. “He walks in and he’ll just start talking about something and telling some hilarious story and everybody’s just captivated and Nick has followed right in his footsteps.
“His mother (Ellen Nixon) is like that too, but even more so, his dad, so definitely the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this instance.”
By day, Mancuso focuses on development in the University of Southern Maine Foundation office. His evenings and weekends are devoted to his writing. He usually gets to work about 6 a.m. Saturday morning after a full week of work to immerse himself in his writing.
His muse is music. While editing he listens to loud rap music, including Kid Cudi. For writing, the music varies, but Lana Del Rey was in the background during much of the writing of “Fever.”
Mancuso talks about his favorite movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart, and his favorite books, “Rebecca” by Daphne DuMaurier and “Saturday” by Ian McEwan.
Reading books, watching movies and lots of research on the topics that Mancuso delves into throughout “Fever,” took over five years, he says. Graduating in 2014 from Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts program, he had many pieces of writing in his portfolio before getting published.
“He’s super serious about his writing,” says Basch. “He’s written a lot and he just kept plugging away and even as he moved ahead in his career he kept at the writing and it just got tighter and tighter and more polished. He’s pretty prolific and really dedicated, so I’ve been really impressed with that.”
While Basch has read much of Mancuso’s other work, she found herself totally immersed in this book.
“I had to tell myself to read more slowly,” says Basch. “It is a page-turner and I would say he got the pacing really right and he also writes from a lot of different perspectives, which is hard to do.
“He cuts back and forth among a bunch of different storylines, which always gets the reader to want to flip more quickly, but it has a real political underpinning, which I really appreciated. There was quite a lot in there about race and sex. Racism and sexism and the kind of violence that is bred in a really often covert way and then sometimes in an overt way.”