The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Alfred A. Knopf. 555 pages. $26.00.
Before I read Donna Tartt’s second and latest novel, I read her first one, and I must admit I did so with my dukes up. The Secret History, from 1992, generated enough hot air to melt the Arctic Circle, let alone to invite skepticism.
Hear ye the blurbs. New York Newsday found it as “stony and chilling as any Greek tragedian ever plumbed.” The Village Voice said Tartt has “a stunning command of the lyrical,” and The Boston Globe likewise noted her “beautiful language,” which among her many other talents “make her debut by far the most interesting work yet from her generation.” Several reviewers picked up on the generational theme. The Miami Herald proclaimed that young Miss Tartt “has the ability to leave her literary contemporaries standing in the road,” and Glamour dubbed her as “her generation’s Edgar Allan Poe.” Oddest of the blurbs was the one from the Philadelphia Inquirer, for whom the book proved “a journey backward to the fierce and heady friendships of our school days, when all of us believed in our power to conjure up divinity and be forgiven any sin.”
That sounds like a pretty good description of what the reviewers themselves did. No question, the book — about a group of Greek students at a small eastern college who become a little too involved in a pagan ritual, and eventually wind up killing one of their own — is a page-turner of sorts. Personally, I put it down midway through, lost no sleep for two weeks wondering what would happen, and didn’t pick it up again until I had read another book, twice. Still, it is thick with both motivation and moral sense, and in its own dim way it manages to suck some commercial juice from the Dostoyevskian terrors it conjures up, of doing the unthinkable and getting away with it.
And yet, and this has something to do with why I was glad to take a break from it, it’s a distracting read almost from the beginning. Mere pages in, that “lyrical,” “beautiful” voice begins to curdle. First of all, there’s the problem with the narrator, who is not a convincing male; he talks like a girl who has read too much Keats. There’s nothing hairy about him. I likewise easily tired of Tartt’s campus-life fetishism, and her superficial student types, few of whom could be distinguished from each other. I found the student’s teacher believable, but not the rest of the adults in the book; Tartt is at her lamest at the dead guy’s funeral, when she tries to skewer a lot of all-too-familiar Southern California types.
Most annoying of all, though, are those tasteful details, showing many years of flipping through catalogues and magazines, that clot Tartt’s prose; close little observations that bring to mind nothing so much as the face of a smug, preening tourist. There’s the clock with “a little black mahout in gilt turban and breeches to strike the hours,” the home with “Attic vases, Meissen porcelain, paintings by Alma-Tadema and Frith”; there’s even the narrator’s eye, which swells with Updikean chiaroscuro after he takes a punch, showing “the richest inks of Tyrian, chartreuse, and plum.” She isn’t always so blandly consumerist; sometimes she’s just fatuous. A pair of cufflinks glint “in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the autumn floor — voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.” “A November stillness was settling like a deadly oxymoron in the April landscape.” A reviewer was scribbling “shitty” in the margin of his paperback.
All the way through, I kept thinking of Tracy Flick, that gratingly self-absorbed straight-A student played to perfection by Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election. One never quite shakes the sense of Miss Tartt sitting at her desk, hand waving in the air — I know! I know! I know! — anxious to display her freshly-learned facts, while the reader, like the teacher played by Matthew Broderick, casts his eyes about the room hoping that someone else, anyone else, will pipe up.
Thankfully, Tartt doesn’t spend near so much time fanning her tail in her new novel, The Little Friend. It doesn’t live up to the hype of the cheering section — it is neither “extraordinary” (Newsweek) nor “breathtaking” (Elle) — and while Tartt has pared away her excesses she has developed at least one new one, a Nabokovian tic for parenthetical summary. The book also has a weak finish that probably didn’t satisfy the author anymore than it does the reader. But I’m inclined to forgive these lapses because it is a focused, interesting and often very funny book that not only drills deep into the heart of childhood but puts Tartt in what seems to be familiar territory: the red-dirt Deep South of Faulkner and O’Connor. Tartt’s Mississippi town of Alexandria has crumbling mansions, trailers and pool halls, doped-up white-trash layabouts, long-suffering black folk, and a deep strain of Christian grotesquerie: Sunday School blowhards, merciless church camps, holy-roller backwoods preachers whose faces are pock-marked with rattler bites, children reenacting the Last Supper in the back yard, and, at the local church, a stained-glass window which depicts a murdered local boy sitting at the foot of Jesus.
The book is set sometime in the late 1960s to early 1970s, although it’s hard to say exactly when; indeed, Tartt seems almost deliberately confusing on this point, possibly to make the book seem as if it exists in some time warp of 30 years ago. There’s never any reference to a current president, which would have helped; instead, there are a lot of murky references that jostle against each other — “Dark Shadows” (which aired from 1967 to 1968) is on TV, and From Russia to Love (1968) is in the theater, but President Johnson and Martin Luther King seem to be somewhere in the past, and the “Class of 70″ graffito on the local water tower is said to be fading. The past, as someone said, is another country; in this novel, it seems to be located on Planet Bizarro.
As was the case with The Secret History, a killer opening sentence pitches us into the center of the story: the death of nine-year-old Robin DuFresnes, who is suddenly missing amidst all the scurrying and planning for a Mother’s Day dinner, and is soon found hanging from a tree. Twelve years later, the killer has still not been found and the death has become one of many unmentionable matters among the Dufresnes family, which includes Robin’s surviving sisters Harriet, 12, and Allison, 16, their slovenly mother Charlotte, grandmother Edie, stalwart maid Ida Rhew, and a gaggle of dotty Southern aunts who live nearby. Of the lot, only Harriet, an infant when Robin died, is concerned with the lingering mystery. Robin is the hovering presence in her pre-adolescent world and — her imagination fired by Treasure Island and tales of adventure — she becomes determined to avenge him. With the help of her pal, Hely, who has not quite matured into a boyfriend, Harriet does a little detective work and figures the killer to be Danny Ratliff, son of a barbaric white trash clan. With the help of Hely and a few snakes, Harriet plots Danny’s death with a child’s remorseless zeal for good against evil.
Tartt is very good at mapping the worlds of these two families from either side of the tracks, and particularly the interior lives of Harriet and Danny, a young girl and a violent dope addict, both full of nerve and fear, both heading for a collision. Tartt has also developed a strong skill for the way people talk; the Ratliff crew reminded me of those sickos you meet in Elmore Leonard’s thrillers, and Tartt hears them almost as well as Leonard does. She has really sharpened her wit, too; there are some hilariously dead-on portraits of Southern Baptist types, some of which were so funny I read them aloud to friends.
Unfortunately, the final showdown between Harriet and Danny is a little too stage-managed, and worse, Tartt decides in the last few pages that resolving the murder isn’t all that important to begin with. Granted, Tartt denied us a wow finish in The Secret History as well, and it may be that unresolved sins are simply part of her Christian view of life in a fallen world where justice is not ours to distribute. Maybe by her next book, Tartt will iron out this kink in a satisfying way. As it stands, The Little Friend represents something of an advancement for a writer whose voice is getting a little less grating.