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The first thing to say about this
novel is that it is a wonderful book.
The second is that it is not perfect.
There seems to be an unwritten rule
that all stories set in the South be peopled exclusively by oddballs, making
southern literature a subsection of the fantasy genre. The Little Friend is no exception to
this rule. Predictably there is racist
violence, genteel poverty, and snake-handling evangelism. Everyone in this world is colorful or
eccentric, although there is an implication that other people, off stage, are
more normal. Those we get to know fall
into three categories: white, kooky, well meaning, middle class people;
loveable, downtrodden, desperately poor, black people; dangerous, bigoted, poor,
On the face of it this is all quite
unpromising. But not all fantasy is bad
(think Borges or the exaggerated realism of Martin Amis). This is a kind of southern gothic Dickensian
fantasy mystery story that is so well written that we can easily overlook the
occasional sloppy grammatical mistake and self-indulgent showing off (when one
character imitates a bird, for instance, we are told not only just how this
bird sounds, but also how a whole list of other birds that the character does not
imitate sound too). These minor
flaws matter because Tartt is not an author one reads only for the plot, which
is largely the stuff of (very good) childrens adventure stories. Her poetic evocation of a world filled with
adrenalin, danger, and psychological corruption risks failure every time the
language jars. This happens rarely
though and the rest of the time it is almost breath-taking how she manages to
keep the trolley on the roller-coaster track, going up into dream visions of
Houdini under water and Scott at the Antarctic, through evocative descriptions
of the everyday world, and down into the physically and mentally mangled world
of evil collided with by the heroine Harriet Cleve.
Tartts story works not just
because of the richness of her descriptions but because she creates a host of
characters we care about. It begins
with the mysterious death of a boy and grows as, years later, his bookish,
feisty, intense, imaginative, slightly nasty sister (who is still a child)
decides to investigate and avenge his murder.
We are told of her meannesses at the beginning, but throughout most of
the rest of the story she is well intentioned (if a little misguided about the
ethics of revenge). She is basically
good, in contrast to the murderers, thieves, drug-dealers, racists and bullies
she gets mixed up with. Just as all the
good characters are at least quirky, often harmfully, so the bad characters are
not purely evil. Their actions are made
understandable because of poverty, bad upbringing, coercion, unorthodox
religion, drug abuse, and brain damage.
Some are almost likeable. Those
that are not can still be relished for their gruesome awfulness.
Despite its traditional flavor
there is no clear moral to the story.
Its world is violent and unpredictable, but most of its inhabitants
survive. Its characters are largely
trapped in the confines of roles determined by family, history, and biology,
but escape is evidently possible, if only for Houdinis. It is possible to make discoveries, but some
mystery always remains. The strangeness
of this world, the wonderful and terrible possibilities (mostly the latter) it
consists of, is more evident than the strangeness of the real world, but
perhaps no more extreme. It is no
clearer what to make of The Little Friend than it is what to make of
life itself. If the novel has a point
other than to entertain, perhaps it is this: it is bad to be mad, and difficult
ever to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
© 2002 Duncan Richter
Duncan Richter is an Associate
Professor at the Virginia Military Institute in the Department of Psychology
and Philosophy. He is the author of Ethics
After Anscombe: Post "Modern Moral Philosophy (Kluwer, 2000) and several papers on ethics