Much too, long and just as loosely assembled as his other recent novels, Burgess' latest black-comic variation on man's sin and God's cruel tricks does have, however, an engagingly grandiose design: the life of homosexual, lapsed-Catholic Kenneth Toomey—a popular, second-rate novelist/playwright whose dates (1890-1971) and connections embrace most of the sexual, artistic, and religious pressure points of the century's first half. Approximately 75% Maugham, 15% Coward, and 10% Waugh, Toomey begins his narration at age 81—when, self-exiled in Malta and wrangling with his latest lover-secretary, he's asked to support the canonization of the late Pope Gregory XVII with a written recollection of one of the Pope's miracles. A book-length flashback then ensues, of course, starting with Toomey at 26, unsuccessfully "trying to reconcile my sexual urges with my religious faith." Dumped by a smarmy, mincing poet (a lifelong nemesis), threatened with scandal over an affair with a married actor, and depressed by his mother's horror at his homosexuality, Toomey leaves London for Europe—where he falls in with the rich Campanati brothers: anti-prohibition businessman Rafaelle, who'll be a Mafia victim in the US; hack composer Domenico, who'll marry Toomey's sister Hortense and (wisely) sell out to Hollywood; but, above all, fat Carlo, a gluttonous, gambling, devout exorcist-priest with whom Toomey debates the matter of free will. And when Toomey find true love with a doctor in Kuala Kangsar who gets fatally cursed by a native Satanist, it's Carlo who magically appears for an exorcism—an impressive, though futile, performance . . . soon followed by Carlo's miracle cure of a dying child in a Chicago hospital. From the Thirties on, however, the novel becomes more lazily episodic, a parade of global and personal calamities to parallel the climbs of Toomey and anti-fascist Carlo (who's out to "make Pope"): the Campanatis' mother dies while trying to assassinate Himmler (who's saved, embarrassingly, by Toomey); Toomey attempts to rescue an Austrian Nobel-winner but merely winds up on German radio sounding pro-Nazi (like poor P.G. Wode-house); Hortense, now with a black lesbian lover, loses an eye in a freak accident. And after Carlo does make Pope in 1958, becoming ecumenical Gregory XVII, family woes escalate: Hortense's anthropologist son is killed by African terrorists (the murder is later linked to the natives' wayward embrace of Catholicism!); her lover dies in agony; and her granddaughter dies in a Jonestown-like mass suicide led by guru Godfrey Manning . . . who turns out to have been that child whom Carlo miraculously healed years ago in Chicago!! So much for miracles—and free will—and life—is what pessimist Burgess (a professed "renegade Catholic") once again seems to be saying; and that one-note theme is hardly resonant enough to round out the sketchy characterization and daffy plotting here. Still, Toomey is an ideal Burgess narrator—bitchy, erudite, wordplaying—and his involvements with America, academia, opera, musicals, and literature (boozy Joyce, smelly Forster, Havelock Ellis, Kipling, a censorship trial in which Toomey finally comes out of the closet), inspire slashing put-downs, wicked parodies, and splendidly whimsical allusions of all sorts. Despite all the issues and debates, then: an essentially skin-deep entertainment, chiefly for savvy Anglophiles and theologically inclined littÉrateurs, which—as Toomey says of his own work—takes unprofound material and manages "to elevate it through wit, allusion and irony to something like art.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1980

ISBN: 1609450841

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1980

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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