Beekeeper Jerry Hook lives above gaping fault lines. His Connecticut hometown is split into lower-class South End and upper-class North End; years ago he left his first wife, Marigolde, a South Ender like himself, for Helen, a cool, competent North Ender with money, and now he wonders if it was the wrong move. He has resumed sleeping with Marigolde on the sly. Meanwhile, his honey business is being squeezed by competition. A developer covets his land. He has dizzy spells, and his doctor prescribes a heart pacemaker. A motorcycle gang torches some of his hives.
Most unsettling of all, Hook's son, Eli, has left home, dropped out of college, started taking drugs, moved in with a neurotic woman professor twice his age, and joined a reincarnation cult led by a man police say has a history of violence. Seemingly harmless discussions at the group's meetings take a sinister turn: Ordinary people--those allegedly incapable of reincarnating--come to be considered "grubs," not fully human.
Jonathan Penner's first novel, "Going Blind," was about the elaborate ways a man organized his life to hide his loss of sight and save his job. "Natural Order" takes, as its most obvious symbol, the exquisitely regulated life of bees. Both Jerry, trying not to lose any of the people he loves, and Eli, searching for an ideology to justify his adolescent sense of separateness while numbing the pain that goes with it, long for such certainty. But Jerry knows that for the bees, "the world is perfect by accident. For me, that accident takes so much design, such planning and waiting." And Eli is repelled by the mindlessness of bee life, "rushing toward death at a pace faster than the human . . . dying and teeming and dying."