GOOD AS GOLD

Critics rightly complained that Bob Slocum, the "hero" of Heller's last novel, Something Happened, was really Jewish beneath his WASP trappings. Well, now Heller atones for his ethnic coverup—with a vengeance. Bruce Gold is, there is no mistaking, a Jew. A college professor and bored writer of articles and books of "fiery caution and crusading inertia," he comes to the attention of the White House, through an old school chum on the staff there. The Washington idiots love Bruce's turns of phrase ("Nothing succeeds as planned," "boggle the mind"); the more imbecilic the prose, the more they adore it, and they offer him a position anywhere on the scale from "close Presidential source" to Secretary of State. (Bruce would love that, if only to crown his obsessive hatred of Henry Kissinger, whom he can't talk about without lapsing into a wicked, galled display of Yiddish.) The White House here plainly stands for archetypal Goyishe kup stupidity, the way the Army stood for confusion and lunacy in Catch-22, with about the same effect: a balloon-y, cartoon-y straw man of manic plenitude. But Heller's real talents come bursting out when he's dealing with Bruce among his own. Bruce's old friends from Coney Island all suddenly appear—successful publishers, doctors, editors of little magazines: "Invite a Jew to the White House—and you make him your slave." A shady garment manufacturer, Spotty Weinrock, and his practical-joke-playing doctor brother, Murshie, are hilarious, Mel-Brooksian portraits. And the book positively sings when Bruce is at table with his family. There's his octogenarian father, whom everyone wants to ship down to a Miami Beach condominium, but who refuses to leave—he couldn't bear to forgo the pleasure of noodging his grown children with 80 years' worth of stored-up contrariness and belittling. And there's older brother Sid, plus five sisters, who've been put on earth (as Bruce sees it) to make him feel like dreck, but in a "nice" way. If this nearly plotless book doesn't add up, all the big pieces provide a great, sloppy, assaulting, impolite comic energy. Heller's loose now, less focused and taking different sorts of risks; here he's flagrantly, Yiddishiy Jewish, taking us deep into familial dread and laughter.

Pub Date: March 1, 1979

ISBN: 0684839741

Page Count: 452

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1979

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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