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NOVEL

Singleton (stories: The Half-Mammals of Dixie, 2002, etc.) may have invented a new genre. Call it The Hoot.

A state-sponsored snake handler and defrocked speechwriter finds even more unusual outlets for his peculiar talents, in the South Carolina author’s meticulously deranged first novel.

Just down the road a piece from the literary territories of James Wilcox and T. R. Pearson is the town of Gruel, where the story begins with a literal bang. Novel Akers’s mother-in-law, Ina Cathcart, perishes along with her common-sense–challenged son Irby, whose lit cigarette encounters her oxygen tube as he’s driving Mom home from the hospital. Then, things get strange. Novel (so named by his ex-concert-pianist parents, because it seemed to fit with those of his older adopted Irish orphan siblings James and Joyce), having lost his job as an itinerant advocate for snakes’ rights (and ecological usefulness)—which is actually a cover for the subversive speeches Novel penned for a clueless lieutenant governor—decides to hunker down and write his autobiography (to be titled, of course, Novel). His wife (Re)Bekah, unhinged by either the above-mentioned fatal accident or her own possible complicity in her daddy’s putative suicide, skips town, leaving Novel to re-renovate the venerable Gruel Inn (which Bekah had turned briefly into the Sneeze ’n’ Tone weight-loss spa) as a writers’ retreat. Novel hangs with philosophical bartender Jeff the Owner, deflects the wandering attention of surplus storeowner (and, probably, Bekah’s hired contract killer) Victor Dees, and half-heartedly romances recently slimmed-down Maura Lee Snipes (whose emporium features her specialty “Jesus Crust”), before being hired as Gruel’s town historian. So it goes, interspersed with Novel’s memories of his siblings’ sociopathic merriment and his eccentric father’s nuggets of useless wisdom (“A great pianist should keep a rabbit with him at all times . . . to keep his hands warm”). There’s a novel somewhere inside Novel, but it’s buried under the gags, many of which are just about irresistible.

Singleton (stories: The Half-Mammals of Dixie, 2002, etc.) may have invented a new genre. Call it The Hoot.

Pub Date: June 6, 2005

ISBN: 0-15-101128-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2005

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

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

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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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