Wright did not live to resolve the dilemma thus created. Furthermore, A Father’s Law is astonishingly awkwardly written, and...

When Richard Wright (1908–60) died, much too young and essentially a stranger in his own country who had found a more congenial “home” in postwar Paris, he was remembered, if at all, as a transitional figure. Between the handful of respected black American authors (such as Charles W. Chesnutt, Claude Mackay and Langston Hughes) and the later, more abrasive achievements of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman and others, there were Wright’s major books. His powerhouse debut novel Native Son, the bitter short stories collected as Uncle Tom’s Children, the impassioned autobiography Black Boy—all now enshrined in the Library of America—bore electrifying witness to the enduring relevance of a writer who made it his life’s mission to dramatize his people's struggles against racist intolerance and injustice.

Now comes A Father’s Law, a never-before-published, unfinished novel. The book was written during Wright’s last illness, which perhaps explains its ungainly, virtually inchoate state. In an introduction to the work, Wright’s daughter, Julia, candidly describes it as a “faulty, sketchy, sometimes repetitive draft.” The book attempts something genuinely new in his oeuvre—a metaphysical crime thriller—and it eerily echoes its author’s own experience. The story begins when veteran black Chicago policeman Rudolph “Ruddy” Turner is summoned to his station late at night and informed that he has been appointed Police Chief. The complication: A series of unsolved murders in the “independent municipality” of Brentwood Park, a hotbed of gambling, prostitution and worse, has become a number-one police priority. Ruddy’s problems are exacerbated at home, in his troubled relationship with his college-age son Tommy, a gifted student and athlete whose renegade intellect questions the legitimacy of laws his father is sworn to uphold—and gradually raises Ruddy’s suspicions that Tommy is implicated in the murders. For Tommy, like the young Richard Wright, has broken off his engagement to a girl afflicted with congenital syphilis (the story is briefly told in Michel Fabre’s 1993 biography The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright). Was Tommy driven to crime, his father agonizes? Or was he attempting to seek punishment he felt he deserved, even for crimes he did not commit?

Wright did not live to resolve the dilemma thus created. Furthermore, A Father’s Law is astonishingly awkwardly written, and would surely not have been offered for publication without major revisions. Still, it lurks in Wright’s harsh oeuvre: a perhaps impenetrable enigma. We cannot salute it as major, even as significant work. But we can understand why Julia Wright thought we needed to see it.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-06-134916-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010



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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