Knopf, 555 pp., $26
At the blurry, inferno-red bull's-eye of Donna Tartt's classically trained debut -- the mention of which is unavoidable in any discussion of her second novel -- paced a troubled young genius in a duel with an invisible opposite. It might have been morality at last asserting its presence in a setting until then bereft of it, or maybe it was natural law giving Henry Winter what he'd wanted all along: a formal split with a world in which morality bears even the slightest chance in the face of shrewdly hedonic, brutally hubristic youth. Either way, he'd engineered at least one murder and had blamed another on Bacchanalian mindlessness, and he paid for them both with his own: a bullet to the head, by his hands, almost happily.
A decade later, then, comes Tartt's second troubled young genius, though this one at 12 (instead of twentysomething) is probably more of a prodigy. Harriet C. Dufresnes' 9-year-old brother, Robin, was strangled and hung from a black tupelo tree when she was an infant; her upbringing in Alexandria, Miss., is rippled with the implications of his apparent thrill kill. Her mother is a nauseatingly tranquil recluse who coddles her with a love gone slightly askew; her sister, who all but disappears by the novel's conclusion, is a quiet, fragile, pretty girl who might have witnessed something of Robin's demise but isn't talking; her grandmother, great-aunts, and housekeeper are condescending and meddling; and her father has fled. It therefore makes perfect sense that Harriet -- a clever little headstrong monster with a fondness for Houdini and Hiawatha, R.L. Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Kipling -- would at first use books to escape her fate, as well as to make sense of it all. What makes imperfect sense is the singular force with which she undertakes a "mission" to exact revenge.
This, maybe, is the point. When Harriet, with the help of her adoring friend Hely, decides instead of deduces that Danny Ratliff -- who was the same age as Robin at the time of his death but came from an impoverished, unseemly brood and now deals speed when not shooting guns at unsuspecting swimmers -- murdered her brother, she's acting with the childlike instinct of a Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. And whereas The Secret History was deliriously plotted with an ornate, faux-Victorian psychological situationalism, The Little Friend Twains its way along with a roughhouse whimsy belying its graveness: The adventure is hilarious to everyone but the principals; the morality is understood to them and no one else.
It's a credit to Tartt that I'm revealing little of her plot here, including its odd, barely omniscient exposition and breathtaking, if shamefully unbelievable, climax (think cobras, Trans Am sunroofs, and rickety water towers). Both of her novels are expertly calibrated and loaded with detail, languorous works crafted for the long haul. In this, they're fascinating, ambitious achievements. But it's still difficult to say whether she's a stylist or a storyteller (or both, or neither), and whether she's writing herself into the Western canon with literary name-dropping or with modernist brilliance. Her fictions hang like priceless pieces of art in several different mansions: impressive but unmoving. "She leaned down to show them the Polaroid -- still pale, but clear enough now to make out," Tartt writes early of Hely's mother, who has caught the prepubescent duo discussing firearms in a toolshed. "'Wonder if it's going to come out any better?' she said. 'You two look like a couple of little Martians.'" One might say the same of Tartt's first couple of big novels.
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