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Wednesday, 08 March 2006 00:00

Modern twist on southern gothic

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Dear readers, your attention, please! Hailing from the backwater town of Alexandria, Miss., allow me to introduce 12-year-old Harriet Dufresnes!

Although she isn’t as attractive as her older sister, Allison, Harriet is well read (Kipling’s The Jungle Book and a graphic account of Capt. Robert Scott’s trek to the South Pole). She is imaginative and smart. In addition, she has a gift for forgery (especially her absentee father’s signature), tree climbing, holding her breath underwater (like her hero, Harry Houdini), and a singular talent for devising imaginative games — like “Gethsemane” or “The Last Supper” in which she is Jesus and the neighborhood children are her sheet-clad disciples (they dine on Ritz crackers).

According to Edie, her grandmother, Harriet has managed to irritate most of the adult world in Alexandria. She also has an implacable adolescent sense of right and wrong — a quality that makes her very, very dangerous.

Much of Harriet’s life revolves around the family tragedy, the murder of her 9-year-old brother, Robin, who was found hanging from a tupelo tree in the back yard. Only one year old at the time, Harriet has grown up listening to the whispered stories about the mystery surrounding her brother’s death.

Despite the common theory that a stranger murdered Robin, Harriet gradually comes to believe that the murderer is someone who lives in Alexandria. Not content to merely discover the identity of the killer, Harriet believes in “an eye for an eye” — she intends to kill (execute) the culprit in a manner as bizarre as her brother’s own demise.

The Little Friend is a full-bodied and totally satisfying bouillabaisse of a tale, packed with the ingredients that make great Southern literature. First, there’s the rack of genteel aunts and a stern, highly opinionated grandmother. The family (the Cleves) are all obsessed with their slow decline from plantation grandeur (the old home was called Tribulation) to shabby, middle-class mediocrity. Next, there’s the vicious, drug-dealing, snake-handling, mountain family in which every member is either maimed, psychotic and/or retarded. (Granny Gum is especially memorable!) This family (the Radcilffs) operates in counterpoint to the Cleves. Finally, there’s an atmosphere that reeks of Mississippi heat and the sound of wind moving through ghostly abandoned buildings, the scream of night birds and the slither of snakes somewhere — lots of snakes.

It becomes quickly apparent that Harriet is a literary descendant of classical Southern Gothic fiction. Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, she observes (spies on) her neighbors, befriends a retarded youth, and — in the company of a faithful sidekick named Hely — launches dangerous forays into the dark underbelly of Alexandria. Some of the most eloquently written passages of The Little Friend deal with Harriet’s relationship with Ida Rhew, her mother’s housekeeper. Like Frankie in A Member of the Wedding, Harriet is devoted to her surrogate mother and undergoes a traumatic shock when Ida is taken from her.

In addition, there is much in The Little Friend that echoes Faulkner’s depiction of the class antagonism between the Comptons (the disenfranchised Southern aristocrats) and the Snopeses (poor whites). In addition, such families as the Radcliffs and the Odums in The Little Friend have a distinct resemblance to the darkly comic characters of Flannery O’Conner – characters that manage to be both sinister and ridiculous.

Tartt also does a masterful job of capturing the accents and idioms of Mississippi, ranging from the speech of fire-and-brimstone Pentecostals and unctuous civic leaders to the genteel parlor speech of the Cleve sisters. Especially noteworthy are some wonderful satirical portraits. For example, there are folks like Mr. Dial, a used car salesman who teaches Sunday school, and the staff of Camp Lake de Selby, a Baptist summer camp that is filled with cant, hypocrisy, and petty cruelty.

It would be a mistake to assume that Tartt’s use of traditional themes and characters in The Little Friend suggests a lack of originality. Obviously, the author admires such writers as Harper Lee, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner. However, the portions of Tartt’s novel that suggest the influence of these writers appear to be a form of tribute or an acknowledgement of influence. Certainly, the lonely Harriet Dufresnes is far more complex than any of her prototypes.

The Little Friend contains some of the most moving, eloquent and gripping passages in Southern fiction. Among my favorites are the death and funeral of Weenie, the old family cat; Harriet’s and Hely’s snake hunt (copperheads and moccasins); and a terrifying descent into a rotting water tank. However, possibly the most moving passage in this novel depicts an ancient black housekeeper who appears at the funeral of her mistress — one of the Cleve sisters that she has served for 50 years. Deeply hurt that she had not been informed of her employer’s death, she comes to the funeral to demand what “Miss Addie” had promised her.

“Alls I want is what is coming to me,” she says, sitting like Banquo’s ghost in front of her employer’s coffin while the discomfited Cleve family fidgets. The scene reads like a prophetic parable of Southern guilt.

I noted at the beginning of this review that Harriet is dangerous. This is not a quality that is associated with any of her prototypes. Her obsession with justice and her ultimate conviction that she has identified her brother’s killer makes her a daunting creation, a character that is fully capable of pursuing justice to a chilling and self-destructive conclusion. Thank heavens she can hold her breath underwater!

The Little Friend is Donna Tartt’s second novel. Her first work, The Secret History, published in 1992, attracted 5 million readers in 24 countries. At present, The Little Friend seems destined to be Ms. Tartt’s most celebrated work.

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