LIGHTS OUT IN THE REPTILE HOUSE by Jim Shepard

LIGHTS OUT IN THE REPTILE HOUSE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Shepard (Flights, 1983; Paper Doll, 1986) changes thematic gears here and portrays an all-too-plausible fascist state--one in which everything is vague to the beleaguered populace and where the only real knowledge (and mockery thereof) comes via torture. Karel Roeder is a teen-ager who works in the zoo with the lizards and makes, under the direction of an older man, Albert. Albert happens to be a resistance leader; the intelligence police know about him, but let him dangle free, in a gray zone, hoping to find out more about his contacts. Karel too finds himself both cossetted by the intelligence forces as well as subverted--postponement is their genius, torture their final weapon. The torture scenes here are horrific and brilliant, far the best elements in a novel where Shepard's special way with adolescent serious informality works for and also against him. Karel is a believable kid, as is his idealist girlfriend Leda--but their indecision and post-pubertal vagueness cast a milky light over the very general portrait of a totalitarian state: you can read uninvolved for long stretches. But when the chief torturer, Kehr, comes onstage, the book takes on a more focused aspect: he is the drama, the novel's Grand Inquisitor. Strong and wrenching in its scenes of destruction of human will; elsewhere, somewhat woolgathering.

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 1989
Publisher: Norton