Tarrt delivers once again — a decade later
I first encountered a Donna Tartt novel some 20 years ago when a friend reverently placed a copy of The Secret History (1992) in my hands, and said, “You will never forget this one.”
He was right. The book stunned me, and I spent a month rereading Tartt’s tale of murder and betrayal in a private school. Critical reaction bordered on hysteria as reviews proclaimed that Tartt was “new voice that is destined to redefine American fiction.” However, it quickly became evident that Tartt did not welcome publicity and except for a few interviews, she quietly withdrew from public scrutiny. The critics speculated about her next novel, but it did not appear. Several years passed and Tartt’s name vanished from the literary journals.
Then, in 2002, The Little Friend appeared and the critics raved again. A kind of literary cult sprang up on the internet. Predictably, the author vanished again and now, 10 years later, The Goldfinch has appeared. Apparently, Tartt needs a decade to create her novels.
Is this one as remarkable as its predecessors? Yes, it is, but with a significant difference: it has the complexity of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov with a cast of characters that could have stepped from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The protagonist has much in common with both Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Is that combination even possible?
The narrator of The Goldfinch is Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker who is struggling to find stability in a world that is proving to be both whimsical and unstable. First, Larry, his alcoholic father, abandons Theo and his mother, Audrey; then a bizarre disaster at the New York Museum of Modern Art (a terrorist bomb) kills Audrey and leaves Theo with psychic scars that he will carry the rest of his life. Lying in the burning wreckage of the museum, Theo finds himself talking to a dying old man who gives him a ring and a business card (“Hobart and Blackwell”), urging him to “ring the green bell.”
Theo remembers that the old man had been accompanied by a girl with red hair who has vanished. In this singular moment, the old man urges Theo to take a small painting (a goldfinch) which has been blown from its frame. Although Theo is unaware of the significance of the dying man’s message, the small painting becomes inextricably bound to Theo’s future. Wrapped in tissue and stashed away in secret spots, the painting becomes both a secret treasure and a curse.
Eventually, Theo is taken in by the Barbours, who had been close friends and associates of Theo’s mother. It is an awkward transition, and although he is fed and clothed, the orphaned boy quickly senses that his presence is resented by the Barbour children. Eventually, Theo learns that Hobart and Blackwell is an old antique store that is rarely open. Theo finds the store and “rings the green bell” and encounters Hobie, who turns out to be a gentle, lovable fellow who restores antiques. Theo also learns that the girl with red hair was severely injured in the explosion and is now recuperating in the antique store. Theo perceives her as a soulmate and becomes obsessed with the idea that they are “meant to be together.”
Returning to the Barbour apartment, Theo encounters his father, Larry Decker, who has come to clean out the old apartment and take charge of his son. Theo’s father is a professional gambler, and suddenly Theo is transplanted to Las Vegas to live with Larry and his girlfriend, Xandra (who, in her high heels and the ever-present smell of Juicy Fruit, is as bizarre as the world she inhabits).The disoriented Theo ends up living in a section of Las Vegas where vistas of abandoned mansions (foreclosures) — many of them without utilities and electricity — bask in the silent “chemical heat.” It is here on Desert End Road that the bored and abandoned Theo begins to experiment with Vicodin, Corona and weed. This is also where he meets Boris, a delinquent and juvenile dealer who will become his best friend.
The friendship that begins in Las Vegas will continue for the next decade and although Theo often comes to feel that this fast-talking, chain-smoking delinquent from the Ukraine is totally destructive and unredeemable, their friendship endures. Because of Theo’s nerdy, bespectacled and timid appearance, Boris nick-names him Harry Potter.
Boris has lived in a dozen countries because his father is a miner who works for a universal mining company. He also abuses Boris, leaving him with black eyes and broken ribs. In time, Boris comes to live with Theo (Larry and Xandra are rarely there), and in the company of a marvelous little dog named Popper, the two friends argue, read, listen to music, experiment with drugs, and without realizing it, become confirmed drug addicts.
In time, Theo learns that his father’s decision to accept his responsibilities as a father are purely selfish. Larry knows that Theo has an inheritance and the gambler needs “seed money” for a new venture. He is also in debt and a Las Vegas “collector” has been to see him several times with a baseball bat. It is not surprising when Larry mysteriously dies “in a car accident” and Xandra vanishes into “the Strip” that Theo, now fifteen, finds himself once more abandoned. He decides to return to New York and manages to smuggle the tiny Popper (and the painting) on board a Greyhound and ends up on Hobie’s doorstep.
For the next eight years, Theo works in Hobie’s restoration shop where he learns the arcane details of furniture restoration. He also learns how to pass off a fake artifact as the genuine article. Unknown to the trusting Hobie, Theo makes a fortune on reconstructed and antique items and Hobart and Blackwell flourishes. In time, Theo becomes engaged to Kitsey, one of the Barbour daughters, who had spurned him when he arrived in the Barbour household. Then, Theo is confronted by a former customer who not only knows about the fake antiques, but has strong suspicions about Theo’s connection with the missing painting. Then, in the midst of blackmail threats and a pending marriage that is sidetracked due to suspicions of betrayal (yes, Kitsey has a lover), Boris appears.
Boris has thrived and he is a major drug dealer who operates in several countries. He has come to confess a theft to his friend and he intends to make it right. Exuding charm and good will, Boris tells Theo that back in Las Vegas, he “borrowed” the painting. Poor Theo has been hiding a package that no longer contains the painting. Well, where is it? It is in Amsterdam where it has been used as “collateral” in drug deals several times, and Boris has now come to reunite Theo with the painting.
The trip to Amsterdam is surreal and memorable. The novel’s atmosphere has darkened considerably, and before Theo and Boris return to New York, there will be daunting episodes involving murder, attempted suicide and a resolution that may qualify as both melancholy and comical. At the end of this novel, the future is still uncertain. Indeed, it there is a unifying theme in this novel, it is simply “nothing lasts.” The Goldfinch is filled with dark passages in which Theo contemplates this world which seems to be in a constant state of flux. Even as he settles cautiously into an easy chair with a glass of wine, he is always aware that the floor is shifting beneath his feet and time is moving forward. What should we do then? Theo says we should keep moving, step forward, and we should do so eagerly. Is there a purpose to our existence? Probably not, but there is art and music and food. Enjoy!
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Little, Brown and Company, 2013. 771 pages.