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Southern Gothic Posturing

According to the blow-by-blow in The New York Times -- a 1992 article recounting the fantastically successful media frenzy ignited by Knopf over its publication of The Secret History, a first novel by a 28-year-old former Bennington student -- Tina Brown, then the editor of Vanity Fair, leaned across a lunch table in July of that year and asked legendary book agent Amanda ”Binky“ Urban what happened to be hot. ”Donna Tartt,“ Binky replied.

And, lo, Tartt was hot: In the fall of 1992, she was profiled in Vanity Fair, Elle, Esquire and Newsweek; her novel -- picked up by Knopf for $450,000, by foreign publishers for an additional $500,000 and optioned by the late film director Alan J. Pakula -- sold out its initial print run of 75,000 and kept selling (a million copies are now in print); it was translated into 23 languages; her book tour encompassed 20 U.S. cities. Just the same, reviews were mixed. Michiko Kakutani, in The New York Times, found the novel ”enthralling“ and ”remarkably powerful“; James Kaplan, in Vanity Fair, gravely considered it ”an extremely serious book“; London‘s Weekly Standard called it ”a gussied up trash novel.“

Tartt herself became, if briefly, the subject of feverish attention, with the media fondling her ”teeny“ doll-like form and Mississippi childhood like a shiny new toy. ”Ms. Tartt cuts a charming and sophisticated figure at interviews,“ the Times gushed. ”She arrived at one in a tailored scarlet jacket with faux leopard collar, cuffs and gloves, and lipstick deep as the waistcoat punctuating her pale face, and she steadily quoted literary works that ranged from ’The Iliad‘ to ’The Wizard of Oz.‘“ Vanity Fair also noted her propensity to quote ”from Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, Buddha, and Plato,“ as well as her ”obsession“ with T.S. Eliot and J.D. Salinger. ”I know a ton of poetry by heart,“ she told the magazine:

”When I was a little kid, first thing I memorized were really long poems by A.A. Milne. Then I went through a Kipling phase. I could say ’Gunga Din‘ for you. Then I went into sort of a Shakespeare phase, when I was about in sixth grade. In high school, I loved loved loved Edgar Allan Poe. Still love him. I could say ’Annabel Lee‘ for you now. I used to know even some of the shorter stories by heart. ’The Tell-Tale Heart‘ -- I used to be able to say that . . . I’m sort of this horrible repository of doggerel verse.“

Tartt was, indeed, a precocious child. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963, she published her first poem at 13 in the Mississippi Literary Review. Shortly after arriving at the University of Mississippi in 1981, she was approached in a bar by novelist and writer in residence Willie Morris, who had seen some of her short stories. He introduced himself by saying, ”My name is Willie Morris, and I think you‘re a genius.“ On his recommendation, she was accepted into Barry Hannah’s graduate writing course. The following year, she transferred to Bennington College in Vermont.

There, her classmates and friends included Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt, and she joined an exclusive coterie studying Greek with the scholar Claude Fredericks, a former lover of James Merrill‘s, known for limiting his classes to a chosen few. During her second year, she began work on what would become The Secret History, about an exclusive coterie studying Greek with the scholar Julian Morrow, at Hampden College, a thinly veiled Bennington. After committing murder during a Dionysian orgy, her protagonists -- led by Henry Winter, dark-suited ”linguistic genius“ and moral relativist -- plan and execute the murder of one of their own, Edmund ”Bunny“ Corcoran, fearing his betrayal of their dark secret.

Told in the first person by one of the student murderers, albeit the only outsider, an arriviste from California named Richard Papen, The Secret History is a fairly good read, essentially a genre novel overlaid by a patina of Culture, in the form of quotations from the classics. But it is obviously a first novel, and a not-economically-edited one at that. Cut down from an 866-page manuscript, The Secret History is still 524 pages, with extraneous scenes and characters; we follow Papen coming and going from his dorm room many repetitious times. Some reviewers correctly faulted the characterization: Tartt has a lazy tendency to rely on tag descriptions (”Plano . . . conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop“) and intensifiers (”Francis Abernathy was . . . quite wealthy“; ”I was somewhat annoyed“).

But the most jarring impression made by The Secret History is how derivative it is, as if the author’s head had been colonized by her favorite writers. It isn‘t unusual for early work to reveal influences, but Tartt’s novel is something of a Frankenstein‘s monster, with great gobbets of portentous foreshadowing stitched into it, and a voice-over narration straight from Hollywood noir. Other characters -- Bunny and his treacherous WASP friends -- are spare parts from Salinger; their fussy WASP prep-school elocutions and affectations -- tea drinking, card playing, pince-nez wearing -- are pure Glass family; Bunny punctuates his conversations with ”wouldja“ this and ”old man“ that; the twins Charles and Camilla (yes, Charles and Camilla, get it?)are a perverted take on Walt and Waker Glass; and Henry’s hotel suicide seems weirdly inspired by Seymour‘s in ”A Perfect Day for Bananafish.“

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.“

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.

Caroline Fraser is the author of God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church.

THE LITTLE FRIEND | By DONNA TARTT | Knopf | 555 pages $26 hardcover


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