Princeton professor emeritus takes tongue-in-cheek approach in novel about local real estate

Edmund Keeley, author and Charles Barnwell Straut Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University Michael Mancuso/The Times

Is the huge house going up next to your little rancher built to please someone whose dream home has more in common with the Taj Mahal than with a cozy cabin in the woods?

When the modest, older house next door was torn down, was it replaced by a home that towered a story-and-a-half over yours, blocking the sunlight and replacing it with a mammoth shadow?

You are not alone.

But your hands may be tied, your neighborhood forever changed and your local governing body caught between the rights of ambitious builders and those of average folks tangled up in a society where some people have no respect for history, a sense of place or their neighbors.

A recent Bloomberg report, headlined “Million-Dollar Home Sales Thrive While Low End Stumbles,” cited a May National Association of Realtors report that noted the sales of luxury homes valued at $1 million or more rose 7.8 percent since March 2013. On the flip side, the same report said sales of homes selling for $250,000 or less (two-thirds of the market) fell 12 percent in the same time period.

Edmund “Mike” Keeley, an author of eight novels, 15 volumes of poetry and fiction in translation and 10 volumes of nonfiction, is also professor emeritus of English and creative writing at Princeton University from 1954 to 1994.

He well knows the mega-mansion scenario as a longtime Princeton resident now living on a high floor in the condominiums at Princeton Windrows, which are actually in Plainsboro.

Keeley is no stranger to plush homes, having grown up as one of the sons of a foreign service officer.

His father’s assignment in Salonika, Greece, led to a home where there was a patio on the second floor, ghosts inside, and fresh milk and butter from the cows. Keeley, who learned to speak Greek in the country he still adores, lived in that home for three years.

In his newly released novel, “The Megabuilders of Queenston Park,” Keeley takes a savvy, poke-in-the-ribs look at the phenomenon of mega-mansions in Princeton, where true wealth never used to have any relation to the size of one’s house.

Using fictional names to protect both the guilty and the innocent, the book reflects his own experience of having a mega-mansion deposited next to his modest rancher in Princeton’s Littlebrook Elementary School neighborhood in “the second (President) Bush era.”

“I wrote the book because I had it happen to me,” the author explained recently while readying for a trip to Greece.

“They built it 6 feet from my property border. They wanted to build a ramp to a level for parking cars that would have been parallel to my roof. It was a mega-mansion. They never did build it that way because they changed the design and it’s been on the market for three times since.”

The main characters in “The Megabuilders of Queenston Park” are an aging pair named Nick and Cassie Mandeville who find themselves doing battle with the father-son builders Randolph and Tim Parker.
Published by the Stockton-based Wild River Books, the novel had local launch party on April 22, Earth Day, co-hosted by Hopewell Valley Community Bank and Princeton’s Labyrinth Books.

Like the couple in the book, Keeley and his wife, Mary, had lived in Princeton on a 2½-acre lot in a small rancher for decades, oblivious to the boon in luxury homes around then.

When the Mandevilles in the novel are confronted by the developer, he tells them: “I understand how you and a few others around here feel, but I’m afraid you’re all living in dream land. I promise you, if it isn’t Solar Estates working to revitalize the neighborhood, it will be somebody else moving in for their own kind of upgrading. The lots in your neighborhood are just too valuable and — forgive me — the houses are too old and small. Someday soon they will have to come down, and I’m afraid that includes yours.”

The same thing happened in Keeley’s life six years ago when a modular mega-mansion was put up literally overnight alongside his house.

As a result, he got involved in a local movement to get laws on the books regarding mega-mansion development and its impact on the environment, but became disillusioned by the politics of it all.

So the Keeley family stayed, upset by the loss of trees, the flight of animals they were used to seeing. And then Mary died.

“My wife died and I got lonely there,” Keeley explained.

“I could have stayed, but I sold the house and moved here (to Windrows) last year. I have two bedrooms and one opens to a view of the south that is quite nice.”

Unable to fully part with his memories, however, Keeley says he still has cartons of old belongings he’s never unpacked. He’s not ready to do that yet.

“I didn’t want to feed the greed of people so I sold (my house) to a couple, but the daughter and son-in-law tore it down and they built a mega-mansion. They tore down all the trees.”

At age 86, Keeley is satisfied that the past three years of his life were well-spent writing the book and finding a publisher.

He hopes readers will come away with what he intended for them to feel: “communal responsibility.”

“We are giving it up and we should not,” he reasoned.

“We have to be more involved in helping people. There is a new class of people. Some think we are losing the middle class in Princeton. I doubt that. But we have to be more informed and involved.”

Trenton Times front page article, May 9, 2014