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BOY CAESAR

What wants to be a transgressive thunderclap ends up a mildly diverting exercise.

Third-century emperor and twenty-first-century academic find they’ve got oh-so-much in common.

From a.d. 218 to 221, Rome’s emperor was an unlikely teenager with the unusually (even for Rome) tongue-tangling name of Heliogabalus. In the very early part of the new millennium in London, the much more simply named Jim is working on his university thesis about—you guessed it—Heliogabalus. In his introduction to this time-skipping tale, Reed (Pleasure Chateau, 2000, etc., not reviewed) mentions that he’s intent on a method whereby the past will dissolve into the present, and vice versa, in the manner of a Derek Jarman film. It’s an unfortunate but all-too-apt comparison, as the ensuing pages can have a tendency to be too mindful of Jarman’s film Edward II—another example of a renegade artist trying to reclaim a previously vilified gay historical figure by melding time periods but getting impossibly lost in the labyrinth of its own baroque mechanics. With all that said, Heliogabalus is an undeniably fascinating character who deserves a full recounting of his reign (though he was reimagined in a 1933 Artaud work, albeit as quite more violent than the dreamy-eyed pinup boy that Reed makes him into). Half of the book is given over to his interior recollections, and it gets quite a bit of steam out of the sheer magnitude of Heliogabalus’s anarchic plans. When the action shifts forward to London and the just-as-self-obsessed Jim (except he has a thing for designer labels, whereas the emperor was obsessed with color-coding gargantuan feasts), the narrative skips and stutters, abandoning the fragrant rhythms previously established in the ancient world. Reed has no problem dropping anachronisms like “rent boy” into the Rome-set text, a stratagem that seems too clever by half, and when Jim’s and Heliogabalus’s worlds start to meld forcefully, the whole thing collapses under the strain of its own pretension.

What wants to be a transgressive thunderclap ends up a mildly diverting exercise.

Pub Date: May 4, 2004

ISBN: 0-7206-1193-8

Page Count: 220

Publisher: Dufour

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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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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