Civilization's thin crust tears again. Atavistic violence bubbles up in a small oceanside Florida (maybe) town in this not- quite black comedy, Antrim's debut. What horror befell little Sarah Miller in narrator Pete Robinson's basement? Why are he and his neighbors protecting their homes by digging deadly concealed pits in their yards? And what on earth could have provoked this middle-class community to draw and quarter one of its own, ex-Mayor Jim Kunkel? A lot of questions at the start here—and beyond the questions, more questions. Thus Kunkel was dismembered by four cars operated by his neighbors- turned-vigilantes as a punishment for killing some picnickers with Stinger missiles. But what set old Jim off? Apparently (this is murky) Pete's Rotary luncheon talk on The Barbarity of the Past, with special emphasis on the rack. So does that mean Pete triggered all the violence? What is clear is that third-grade teacher Pete is the central figure, working hard to establish a school in his home (the local system is bankrupt) as a cover for his messianic ambition to be mayor. We also know that his sympathetic wife, Meredith, is afraid of him. Perhaps that's why she symbolically escapes him by becoming a coelacanth during a trance-state at a ``theriomorphism workshop''—though she can't save little Sarah from her fate in the basement, the climax of this short work. Pete, though mad as a hatter, comments on the grisly goings-on (including his ritual burial of the ex-Mayor's body parts) with a cool, ironic intelligence; this dissonance is the novel's most striking feature—and effective up to a point. But Antrim's failure to orchestrate his flashy set-pieces leaves the impression of a first draft, albeit from a promising new talent with a wonderfully keen ear. (First serial to Harper's and The Paris Review.)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-670-85139-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1993

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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