Four Americans converge on a Central-American banana dictatorship called Tecan—and each of them is clearly ready for some internal shake-up. Frank Holliwell, an anthropologist suffering from anomie, has been invited down by the Tecan national university to give a lecture—and he's also been asked to do some snooping around by CIA buddies he'd known from Vietnam days. Pablo Tabor, a young paranoid speed-freak Coast-Guard deserter, has signed on aboard a gun-running boat set to deliver arms to Tecan rebels. Sister Justin Feeney, a young Devotionist nun, is about to be pulled from her Tecan coast dispensary by her order (she's a supporter of the rebels). And Father Egan, Justin's co-missionary, is a priest who's steadily more pickled with brandy and visions of the Demiurge and the Pleroma. These, four, in fact—the intellectual wimp adrift in history, the bad-news outcast, the tragically strong woman, the released-of-it-all gnostic—are pretty much the usual cast of a Stone novel (A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers): four compass points that themselves stagger under generally vicious circumstances. Stone's hallmark—scenes of menace—is on lavish display here too: corpses in freezers; a woman threatened with a gun at her head while frozen burgers are arranged around her supine body; at least three shipboard murders. And the violence seems very right, made inevitable by the tone of dark historical despair underlying everything. But whereas A Hall of Mirrors and, even more, Dog Soldiers spiked toward catharsis (novels as plotted as Stone's surely seem to demand one), here the fever-break is absent—with oddly ill-timed, often premature climaxes which make us feel like we're guttering instead of steadily climbing. True, there's no shortage of dramatic movements here: Holliwell and Sister Justin have a brief and mutually-embarrassing amour; there are truly awful murders, torture, a failed revolt, an exhaustion of motive. But the working-out of the story finally seems not much more cutting (only more hard-boiled) than the vector in a book like The Bridge at San Luis Rey (fate—and cynicism—bringing people together only to destroy them); and whole sections are fumbly, purple at times, contrived enough even to resort to an eavesdropping scene. And yet, all that said, this is also the work of a truly powerful, unduplicated voice. No American writer does crazy dangerous people better—perhaps because no American novelist finds the strain of pusillanimity in contemporary Americans quite as scary as Stone does: "Pablo took himself out on deck again, the anticipated clean clothes he carried were just a useless embarrassment now. He was nearly enraged. It was a hell of a thing not to get a shower when you wanted one. It was a bring-down. It made you negative." And, more agonized than even a Naipaul over history's black holes, Stone lights every page with the superiority of his prose: the great descending speed of his paragraphs, hipness turning ecclesiastical, the extraordinary cynical ventriloquisms of much of the dialogue. Writing on this sure a ad powerful level is not to be ignored—even when its container, as here, seems poorly weighted and subject to leaks.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 1981

ISBN: 0679737626

Page Count: 680

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981

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A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986

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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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