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THE HEARTS OF MEN

Butler’s mostly unembellished prose delivers a well-paced, affecting read.

Across three generations and as many wars, this earnest novel explores the ways boys become men and how even flawed men may stand as models for the young.

Butler starts with a bleak picture of bullying at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Chippewa in Wisconsin in the summer of 1962. Bespectacled Nelson, at 13 the youngest boy in his troop, progresses from blunt isolation (“Nelson has no friends”) and ridicule to an awful ordeal in the camp latrine. His one defender, the older Jonathan, betrays him, while the upright scoutmaster, World War I veteran Wilbur Whiteside, leads him into snitching on misbehaving counselors. Wilbur, who can recall how many boys in his neighborhood were beaten by their coal-miner fathers every night, also saves Nelson and his mother from her abusive husband, sending the youngster to a military academy that shepherds him to West Point and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Jonathan grows up to have a son, Trevor, whom he introduces to his mistress and lap dances on the same night. Trevor will marry his high school sweetheart—despite his father betting against it—and sire a son, Thomas, before going to war in Afghanistan. His wife will eventually take Thomas to Camp Chippewa, where Nelson is now scoutmaster and her longtime friend; she stays on as a chaperone and will deal with another kind of bully, older and more dangerous. Butler’s debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs (2014), explored the forces that bind and erode friendship among a group of young men growing up in a Wisconsin town. This book mines a darker seam, delving into the roots of the male character and how it may be shaped by a code of behavior or an exemplar and warped or strengthened by trauma. He presents few strong women characters, but the exceptions suggest he has much to offer in that area.

Butler’s mostly unembellished prose delivers a well-paced, affecting read.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-246968-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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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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