Through every sad, ugly twist of this story, you feel yourself wanting to turn away, but you can’t.

A debut novel with red herrings steeped in mind-numbing heat and bone-chilling darkness deep in the modern American prairie.

Prisons are the major industry in Leavenworth, Kansas, and business is booming in the summer of 1988—even if maintaining those prisons apparently means the city can’t afford to build a new public library. Meanwhile, there’s an escaped prisoner on the loose—a fact that two young boys, sons of a local policeman, are trying hard to ignore as they live from one hot day to the next, swimming and diving in the pool at their divorced mom’s apartment complex. Yet the brothers invent a name for the escapee, “The Stranger,” and he becomes part of the fantasy world they invent to escape a dreary reality comprising a father who's less than sure of his own law enforcing capabilities either at home or on the streets and a mother haplessly engaged in a romance with a sleazy ex-con who works at the same golf course pro shop she does. Prominent among the other bigger people in the brothers’ lives is Chris, who one days materializes at the pool; for all his amiable coaching of the boys’ diving techniques, he seems as enigmatic to the younger brother as he is engaging to the older one. As the summer drags on (and as, intermittently, the novel does), the humid atmosphere around the brothers’ world becomes freighted with ominous portents: the search for “The Stranger” stalls, the threat of tornadoes increases, both parents become more depressed, and the older brother becomes more violent and temperamental, imperiling the strong bond he has with his younger sibling. This first novel represents an expansion of a short story by Smith (who grew up in Leavenworth), and at times, it seems to strain from the added development. But Smith’s spare, taut prose, along with the empathy he brings even to characters neither you nor the boys like much, compensates for such lapses, as does a flair for raw, gut-clutching menace shared by masters of rural American gothic. Smith’s not in their company yet. But, in time, he could be.

Through every sad, ugly twist of this story, you feel yourself wanting to turn away, but you can’t.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-374-53588-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2016



The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000



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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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