Updike grows steadily more dazzling. After all, how many other contemporary novelists have had the artistic suppleness to launch two such different series of character-based books and allow them to do so much? (If Rabbit is a tennis-shoed archbishop of the American middle, Bech is Updike's pulchinello, his writer-as-sad-clown, a Mosaic itinerant.) Yet both characters feed off the same basic freedom: not failure exactly, but resonated disappointment. Henry Bech, you'll remember, is Updike's prototypical writer: New-York-Jewish, naturally—and a big splash that's now dried-out. (He's the winner of the Melville Award, "awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence.") So, stalled on his work-in-progress, Think Big, Bech scrambles. Signing limited-edition reprint pages of an earlier novel, each scrawl worth a buck-and-a-half and a free vacation in the Caribbean, he enters the nightmare of having his very name dismantle under his hand. When he travels on State Department tours to the Third World, his alkaline talks and the student demonstrations against him lead him to be "sorry he had ever said anything, on anything, ever. He had meddled with the mystery of creation. There was in the world a pain concerning which God has set an example of pure and absolute silence." He marries his WASP lover Bea, who gets him to move up to Westchester, to travel to Israel (where, to great comic effect, she's more enthusiastic than he is) and to Scotland (where Updike indulges in piquant travel-writing with sparkling economy). And they finally settle in, in Ossining-where the goyim terrify Bech as exotics, "so brittle and pale and complacently situated amid their pools and dogwoods and the old Dutch masonry of their retaining walls, that he felt like a spy among them and, when not a silent spy, a too-vigorous, curly-haired showoff." At last, then, Bech writes: he finishes Think Big (which seems wonderful/dreadful in Updike's clever outline), earns a bundle, winds up as just another celebrity . . . and ultimately abandons the let-down Bea. ("I just thought . . . your living here so long with me, with us, something nice would get into your book. But those people are so vicious, Henry. There's no love making them tick, just ego and greed. Is that how you see us? I mean us, people?") Schlemeil humor at its ventriloquistic best, fine travel observations, literary acid—all splendid. But Updike's newest Bech-book moves past the satiric pinpricks of the first volume and into a personification of moral compromise—sure to make any writer squirm in recognition, sure to reward any reader. Like a delicious sundae that turns out to be whipped up out of vitamins and minerals: brilliant fiction, great fun.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 1982

ISBN: 0449004538

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1982



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



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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