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S.S. PROLETERKA

Though its suppression of emotion seems a bit studied, this is nonetheless an elegantly structured and stubbornly moving...

Death and alienation hover like menacing theme music over the elliptical scenes that compose this disturbing 2001 novel by Italian author Jaeggy (Sweet Days of Discipline, 1993, etc.).

In a flat affectless narration that careens between numerous past and present scenes, as well as first- and third-person address, Jaeggy’s unnamed narrator focuses on a voyage from Vienna to the Greek Islands and back, undertaken with her widowed German father Johannes. During that voyage—on the Yugoslavian vessel Proleterka (meaning “The proletarian Lass”)—the narrator, who is 15 and has almost from birth been starved for human contact, becomes the willing sexual partner of any crewman who wants her (“By the time the voyage is over, she must know everything”). In skillfully juxtaposed memory scenes, Jaeggy fills in details of Johannes’s financial crises (after his twin brother’s terminal illness forces his formerly wealthy family to sell its textile factory), disastrous marriage, and ostracism from his young daughter by his late wife’s flinty Italian mother Orsola and her secret-riddled family. The narrator’s own feelings emerge from potent surreal memories (e.g., of her mother’s piano as an eerie threatening presence), brisk rejections of emotion and connection (“Parents are not necessary”), and wary characterizations of unknowable people glancingly encountered, on shipboard and in the “ruins” (implicitly compared to sites visited by the ship’s passengers) of her father’s half-buried, submissive life. The novel takes a surprising turn, long after Johannes’s death, when the now-middle-aged narrator is contacted by a moribund elderly man who claims he is her father, and offers her an alternative life (which ironically echoes the losses and sorrows that have made her the remote, stoical woman she is).

Though its suppression of emotion seems a bit studied, this is nonetheless an elegantly structured and stubbornly moving study of innocence destroyed and love denied. Very accomplished indeed.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2003

ISBN: 0-8112-1550-4

Page Count: 144

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2003

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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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