James Axton is an American free-lance writer working out of Athens as a part-time "risk analyst" for a shadowy conglomerate selling political-risk insurance, mostly to large companies fearful of having a foreign base of operations collapse on them (just as Iran is doing right then, in the novel). His wife Kathryn lives separated from him, with their precocious son Tap, in primitive conditions on a Greek island; and James' Athens social life consists mostly of the cafe-society of sharp and jaded Americans like himself, not bohemians but business-people schooled in the multinational machinations of large banks, in airline etiquette, in "the humor of personal humiliation." In the book's best scene, for instance, James seduces (by means of urgently lewd and pressuring talk) a young corporate wife who has just performed a salaciously innocent belly-dance exhibition at a party. And as long as DeLillo stays within this class of the edgy and expatriate, bis novel is fine—gritty and adhesive. But then, as he has done in other fiction, DeLillo introduces a cloudy, false-seeming thriller element, one with obvious metaphorical intent, but little inherent (or even coherent) suspense: James, along with a gratuitous film-director-friend character, winds up trailing a murder cult from Greece to Jordan to India, a cult which kills individuals whose names line up, in initials, to those words inscribed on a holy stone. And, as before, one senses DeLillo's lack of genuine interest in his plot, his far greater commitment to philosophical digressions: "A freedom, an escape from the condition of ideal balance. Normal understanding is surpassed, the self and its machinery obliterated. Is this what innocence is? Is it the language of innocence these people spoke, words flying out of them like spat stones? The deep past of men, the transparent word." The central motif here, then, is the essentially semantic nature of reality; and the larger theme is, as usual with DeLillo, the foulness of modern life—its sullying, cheapening progress. But while other DeLillo books (even the weaker ones) have presented that theme with an insistent, disturbing blade of glittering scorn, this time there's more somber meditation . . . while only a few scenes flare. And so, though a great talent remains on display in those glimpses of plastic/expatriate lifestyle, this ambitious essay-novel is characteristically uneven—and un-characteristically dullish as well.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 1982

ISBN: 0679722955

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 22, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1982




A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986



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