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Southern Gothic Posturing 

Donna Tartt comes home

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002

Page 2 of 3

So expectations surrounding Tartt’s new novel, The Little Friend, appearing a decade after her first, might reasonably focus on how this magpie has matured. Breathless articles speculating about Tartt‘s delayed second act -- writer’s block? The curse of success? -- have duly appeared. But the real question should be: Has she managed to write something original? Or is The Little Friend another ”horrible repository“ of undigested literary leftovers?

The novel is set in a small town in Mississippi, at a time made deeply confusing by a welter of references: Kids are listening to the hi-fi; Dark Shadows is on the TV (it aired from 1966 to 1971) while the Burt Bacharach song ”Close to You“ (1970) is on the radio; meth labs are big and the ”Class of ‘70“ spray-painted on the town water tower has faded, ”bleached by sun and washed dull by years and years of rain.“ The plot, at least, is clear: Twelve-year-old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, youngest scion of an eccentric, destroyed Southern family, sets out to discover who murdered her 9-year-old brother, Robin, when she was a baby, hanging him from the black tupelo tree in their yard. Mistakenly and disastrously, she becomes fixated on Danny Ratliff -- meth addict and former ”little friend“ of her brother’s -- as her prime suspect.

From the beginning, we find ourselves in familiar territory, among familiar figures. Every American woman who grew up idolizing Louise Fitzhugh‘s Harriet the Spy will be startled to see their childhood heroine reproduced so exactly in this Harriet, with her notebook, plain tomboy looks and cunning, if stubbornly thoughtless, detective work. Likewise, the echoes of Southern literature are so loud -- particularly in descriptions of Harriet’s family and Mississippi town -- it is astonishing that the author and her editor (Gary Fisketjon, at Knopf) could not hear them. Harriet‘s mother, Charlotte -- vague, wafting, aging Southern belle with the vapors and ”sick headaches“ -- is shamelessly cribbed from Tennessee Williams, as is ”Tribulation,“ the long-lost, lamented Cleve family mansion. ”The floors were rotten, the foundations were soft with termites, the entire structure was on the verge of collapse.“

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Yes, we know! We’ve already been there, in Williams, in Faulkner, in Gone With the Wind, for god‘s sake. And the pastiche wouldn’t be complete without the requisite slobbering Southern retard, in the form of Curtis Ratliff, Danny‘s brother. A host of other figures have wandered in from To Kill a Mockingbird: Calpurnia, that novel’s righteous black servant and mother substitute, is reborn as Ida Rhew; Mrs. Dubose, Mockingbird‘s nasty neighbor lady obsessed with her camellias, turns up as Mrs. Fountain, nasty neighbor lady obsessed with her prizewinning roses; and Mockingbird’s poor white trash in the piny woods, the Ewells and the Cunninghams, re-appear as Ratliffs, Odums and Scurlees, with a veneer of Elmore Leonard‘s trash-talking, drug-dealing, snake-handling crackers laid on.

The best thing I can say about The Little Friend is that Harriet is a more fully fleshed-out character than the cardboard caricatures of The Secret History. The scene in which she frantically searches for a pair of gardening gloves -- a gift from Ida Rhew that she never values until the servant is fired and departs forever -- is the one true moment in this book, moving and troubling. But it’s lost, like a raisin in a fruitcake, in the dense, rummy mass of this leaden novel. The Little Friend doesn‘t read like a labor of 10 years’ love. It reads like a glibly written, poorly edited mystery that the author hasn‘t bothered to solve. We never get to learn who killed little Robin Dufresnes, just as we never get a convincing explanation of the Dionysian orgy in The Secret History. Of course, that’s supposed to be the point: We‘re to realize that life is like that, a permanent puzzle, a tissue of frustrated expectations. Instead we just feel cheated, because this, like its predecessor, is at bottom a genre novel, but one that abandons, unwisely, the conventions of the form. Tartt ought to abandon, as well, those Bennington pretensions to High Literature, because her talents -- for gothic posturing and galloping melodrama -- lie elsewhere.

  • Donna Tartt comes home

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