Child's Play? 

Donna Tartt's newest: weighing the pros and cons.

The Little Friend

By Donna Tartt

Knopf, 555 pp., $26

If you're not already, then prepare to be besieged by the buzz about Donna Tartt's new novel, her second, The Little Friend. Ten years in the making (and 10 years after Tartt's debut novel, The Secret History, put her publisher and the media into maximum overdrive), The Little Friend finally arrives but with battle lines drawn, and we're talking after only its first week in stores.

The defense: The New York Times, where reviewer A.O. Scott called it a "large and satisfying" creation "crowded with a bustling, ridiculous humanity" -- a "ruthlessly precise reckoning of the world as it is," "overgrown with symbolism" perhaps but a book marked by a "tragic, fever-dream realism" quite suited to its theme of adolescence graduating into young adulthood and wakening to the real evil men do.

The offense: John Freeman in The Wall Street Journal decrying Tartt's "carnival of stereotypes" as one more needless example of the Southern Gothic novel at its most "smothering" and retrograde. And in an all-out assault, Troy Patterson, writing in Entertainment Weekly, went straight for the jugular and pronounced the book "an extended prose catastrophe": "bad Faulkner" and "incoherent"; "inconsistent" when it comes to characters and "overwrought" when it comes to language, which makes it neither "literature" nor "decent trash" -- a lesson, in short, in "strained unreality." Wonder why, then, Patterson gave the book a "D" rather than the solid "F" he seems to think it so richly deserves. Must be he admired Tartt's effective use of "the" in the title.

Leaving aside the suspect practice of closing a book review with a letter grade, Patterson does have a point. Delete Tartt's flurry of overripe adverbs and the occasional overstuffed passage, and this meandering, episodic doorstop of a novel might have reached its climax dozens of pages sooner without losing an ounce of atmosphere or a single key to character. But "bad Faulkner"? "Incoherent"? A "prose catastrophe"? Patterson couldn't be talking about The Little Friend, but he could be trying to make a name for himself outside the pages of one our most illustrious weeklies.

The Little Friend is about the following, in case you haven't heard and in case you can't tell literature from (decent?) trash or whatever it is that amounts to neither:

Harriet Cleve Dufresnes was an infant when her 9-year-old brother Robin was found hanging from a tree, dead, in the backyard of their home in the small town of Alexandria, Mississippi. The case was never solved. Twelve years later, Harriet's 16-year-old sister, Allison, still hasn't much of a toehold on reality, and Harriet's mother, Charlotte, can barely get her feet out of bed, much less down the stairs, much less out the door. Ida Rhew, the black housekeeper and cook, underappreciated and underpaid, is really the one running the place, but it's Edie, Harriet's no-nonsense maternal grandmother and one of the town's socially prominent Cleve sisters, who's really running the show when it comes to upholding the family name. Harriet's father? He's a businessman and a social upstart, according to Edie and her aged sisters. He's still married to Charlotte but living in Nashville, and he's barely on the scene.

Harriet's classmate, Hely, is her partner in mischief, and based on chance remarks by Hely's older brother, Pemberton, and Ida Rhew, Harriet -- "fierce on the playground, rude to company," fearless, independent, opinionated, lover of adventure tales, admirer of Harry Houdini, in sum, according to Pemberton, "a trip" -- sets out, during this long hot summer before eighth grade, in the 1970s, to track down Robin's killer.

Her focus is ex-con Danny Ratcliff, one of the multiple trailer-trash Ratcliff boys who are in or out of prison (except the retarded Curtis), or, in the case of Farish, in and out of dangerously fueled methamphetamine mental meltdown. Danny, though, was a classmate and unlikely friend to young Robin, and he was on the scene just before Robin's death, so Danny's Harriet's chief suspect. More than that you don't need to know, because more than that Harriet doesn't know. But she acts.

No use, because there's no room here, to begin to go into the myriad, memorable features of this long tale -- some of them, Harriet's high-wire behavior in particular, it's true, stretching believability to the melodramatic breaking point -- but those critics who chafe at Tartt's absolute command of small-town Southern manners (even into the '70s), her fine capturing of the speech patterns and underlying assumptions separating the upper from the middle to the lower crust in Southern white society, her attention to the surviving effects of inveterate racism, and her gift for seeing into the lure of mystery as a 12-year-old perceives mystery either don't know the, yes, Gothic elements still haunting the Deep South or don't recognize a mature writing talent delivering that eagerness for intrigue over the course of 500-plus coherent pages.

Let Tartt's proponents and detractors have their day. I say: The Little Friend: "A".

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