A Density of Souls
Reviewed by Barry Johnson, Fri., Sept. 29, 2000
A Density of Soulsby Christopher Rice
Talk Miramax Books, 274 pp., $23.95
"The swamp of New Orleans made a better home for mosquitoes than humans," 22-year-old Christopher Rice writes in his debut novel, A Density of Souls. It's a pointed observation, and one whose sentiments are echoed throughout this excessively grim coming-of-age tale. In setting his story in the Crescent City, Rice provides copious amounts of deception, blackmail, and a dash of the taboo not typically found in even the most brutal accounts of high school. Rice (son of Anne and Stan Rice) uses the gothic legacy of his city as a primary character, propelling a story which, in most other cases, would seem fantastic if not completely bizarre. The result is a debut whose narrative shortcomings are outweighed by the promise of more refined storytelling to come.
A Density of Souls hinges on the relationship between four friends -- Brandon, Meredith, Steve, and Greg -- whose lives are spun in different directions once they enter a private high school in New Orleans' high-society Garden District. Stephen (who reportedly represents the author) remains the story's focus, a thin whisp of a young man who is socially exiled by his classmates and friends for coming out. While Greg and Brandon join forces on the football team, Meredith colludes with the cheerleaders to make sure they're viewed with nothing less than complete awe. The catch? Meredith is privy to a chain of sexually experimental events which expose Greg, Brandon, and Stephen as more than just friends. These events, in turn, lead to revelations about various family histories of infidelity, violence, and deceit which put the four teenagers on even ground with their tortured parents.
Rice, whose fluid prose navigates smoothly between the agony of adolescence and the apparent stability of adulthood, has a keen ear for observation. His characters speak and act with an ease that proves Rice to be wiser than his years. "Rage was the best weapon against pain," he writes with subtle insight, revealing the extent to which adults and teens react to pain (in particular, Rice conveys the need for parents to censor their pasts in order to protect their future). Much of the material between the younger characters and their parents is rich with mystery and the unsaid, suggesting an eventual demise to years of misspent rage.
Unfortunately, Rice loses control of his characters as the novel progresses and erupts into an overwrought soap opera that's simply too preposterous to take seriously. Nonetheless, A Density of Souls never fails to be entertaining, and Rice deserves credit for stumbling through the climax and gently gaining ground with a boomerang conclusion that proves he knew exactly what he was doing all along.
Christopher Rice will be at BookPeople on Monday, October 2, at 7pm.