A well-turned but overly familiar sequence of domestic dramas.

A HAND REACHED DOWN TO GUIDE ME

STORIES AND A NOVELLA

For his first work of fiction in more than a decade, Gates explores—though maybe the better term is strip-mines—well-off souls hitting the skids thanks to divorce, illness, self-medication, or some combination thereof.

Gates knows his preferred theme, and the dozen stories here stick to it. The opening novella, Banishment, is narrated by a New York journalist who falls for a semifamous architect 30 years her elder. Speaking in a sassy, world-wise, but increasingly weary tone, she catalogs her creative decline (her dream of using her kept-woman status to write essays ends with her whiling away days smoking weed), her husband’s failing health, and an emotional decision that crashes the house of cards. In that story, Gates (The Wonders of the Invisible World, 1999, etc.) displays a knack for burrowing into the lives of affluent, culturally savvy types. But though Gates tinkers with perspective and setting in the remaining stories, their effect is less expansive and ultimately repetitive. “Alcorian A-1949” is narrated by a hard-drinking composer turned cynical about his “oh-so-personal vision.” “George Lassos Moon” follows a theater critic with a drug habit, thrust back into the life of a protective aunt after a drunk-driving arrest. An English professor in “Monsalvat” is maintaining a speed habit while minding her aging poet father. And so on, and so on. Sometimes these stories strain credulity to attain their effect of domestic collapse, never worse than the moment when a doctor’s druggy children take revenge on his new wife in “A Secret Station” by taking a chainsaw to the Thanksgiving turkey. Gates is a graceful and penetrating writer about people who are stuck in a rut. But the rhythms and emotional temperature of these stories have a stubborn sameness of their own.

A well-turned but overly familiar sequence of domestic dramas.

Pub Date: May 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-35153-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

THINGS FALL APART

Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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THE SECRET HISTORY

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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