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A DOUBTER'S ALMANAC

Book clubs may dig into the many interesting veins here—family, ambition, addiction, lust—but Mean Dad was the motherlode,...

This complex portrait of a troubled math genius and the effect his gift has on those close to him combines a strong narrative and bumper crop of themes.

For his seventh work of fiction, Canin (America America, 2008, etc.) first presents some 200 third-person pages focused on Milo Andret, an only child whose aloof parents give him a freedom he exercises in the Michigan woods. There, he discovers unusual talents as a whittler who carves a wooden chain more than 25 feet long from a beech stump. A late-blooming math whiz, at Berkeley grad school in the 1970s, he specializes in topology, whose practitioners “built undrawable figures in their imaginations, then twisted and folded them.” He also discovers LSD, sex, and academic competition, laying the groundwork for long-term addictions. He gains fame in math and a job at Princeton, but heavy drinking, sex, and the drive for another milestone undo him. Canin then switches to the voice of Milo’s son, Hans, who reveals he has been the quasi-omniscient narrator of the first section, based on stories told to him by his ailing father. It’s an awkward, risky shift that pulls the story away from its focus on a deeply intriguing character (though perhaps a useful lesson in unreliable narrators for the author’s classes at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). Hans gives his boyhood observations of Milo’s “Olympian drinking” and is surprised to realize how “normal” his own childhood seemed. Yet he also struggles with addiction, from an Ecstasy precursor to cocaine as well as the high of a quant’s wins on Wall Street, which is where Hans uses his own considerable math skills. Ultimately a nice guy, he pales beside the fiercely irascible, hurtful patriarch.

Book clubs may dig into the many interesting veins here—family, ambition, addiction, lust—but Mean Dad was the motherlode, and it’s not clear that Canin’s easing of the darkness makes for a better novel.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6826-5

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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