Performance artist Kleine debuts with the bleak intertwined tales of a fourth-grader murdered by her mother and a narcissistic loser who shoots the movie star he’s been stalking.
The novel was “inspired,” the author tells us, by the creepy real-life love affair of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley and Leslie DeVeau, who killed her daughter (a childhood friend of Kleine’s) and met Hinckley while both were patients in a psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately, the only character who comes to fictional life here is Tammy, an anxious 10-year-old at the end of 1980, when she relocates to Washington, D.C., and finds herself on the fringes of her new school’s social scene while younger sister Steffi fits right in and swiftly acquires a best friend, Kirin. Tammy’s mother and stepfather are stick figures of selfishness, leaving the girls to pick up and supervise their 4-year-old half brother after school, while Kirin’s mother, Valerie, is such a twitching mass of symptoms that it’s all too clear which mom will be shotgunning her daughter halfway through the novel. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Hackney (the Hinckley stand-in) grieves over John Lennon’s death and can’t understand why neither his parents nor anyone at the college where he’s stopped attending classes can see how special he is—never mind that he makes few efforts to demonstrate his specialness other than some creative bouts of lying to cover up his failures. The flat-affect prose doesn’t encourage us to feel any empathy for—let alone interest in—Jeffrey or anyone else except pathetic Tammy in this dour saga of alienation and unhappiness. It doesn’t help that the narrative whipsaws between Jeff’s growing fixation on starlet Amber Carrol and the interactions of the kids and parents in Tammy’s neighborhood, chronicled in chapters confusingly split among multiple points of view. After the two murderous denouements, the novel dwindles into a depressive anticlimax for Tammy and more delusions for Jeff and Valerie.
Fact-based fiction needs more imaginative transformation than it gets here.