Donna Tartt’s first novel, “The Secret History,” was a precocious book about precocious people written by a precocious author — guaranteed, that is, to irk the throngs of envious lesser talents who stand ready to take pot shots at any writer (other than themselves, of course) who presumes to win critical and commercial success at too early an age. And her characters were aggravating, it’s true; pretentious classics majors at a bohemian private college in Vermont, they wore pince-nez, for crying out loud, and played euchre. But try, once you’ve started it, to stop reading that novel. Most people couldn’t. It’s got its share of rough spots, affectations and improbabilities, but it’s not dull, the chief sin of 95 percent of the fiction published today.
Some novelists write pristine sentences; others craft wizardly set pieces; some paint the complexities of family relations in infinitely subtle watercolor tones. They’re good at mood, or they’re good at plot. Some can deliver a detailed, reverent description of, say, how hogs were slaughtered on 19th-century farms; some draw out the perplexities of life in a media-saturated society; some concoct elaborate existential puzzles. And some novelists, a very few, just have the hoodoo. Tartt is one of them.
In this review, I can tell you that “The Little Friend” — her second novel, arriving 10 years after “The Secret History” — is overlong, its writing occasionally precious and its resolution murky; and I can also praise the book’s vital characters, its supple conjuring of mood and place, and its dry, dark humor. But I can’t explain how it is that this is a novel you sink into, or how Tartt casts her weird spell. I suspect, however, that it has nothing to do with acquired technique or any understanding of real life; no doubt she picked up the knack during a lifetime of obsessive and probably unhealthy reading. Wherever she got it, she sure knows how to write the sort of book that people who want to get lost in a book get lost in.
“The Little Friend” is a Southern novel, and a coming-of-age novel to boot, partaking of two genres that all too often devolve to cliché or cartoon; Tartt resorts to neither. Her heroine, Harriet Cleve Dufresne, lives in a small Mississippi town sometime in the late 1970s. Her mother barely functions, a vague, moping presence ever since Harriet’s older brother, Robin, was found hanged from a tree at the age of 9, the victim of an unknown killer, shortly after Harriet was born. Her father spends most of his time in Nashville, where he keeps a clandestine mistress. Harriet and her sister Allison, 4 at the time of Robin’s murder, have been raised mostly by their grandmother, Edie, her three sisters and the family’s black maid.
Surely Harriet owes her name to the titular spy of Louise Fitzhugh’s classic children’s novel. She’s in the literary tradition of fierce, impossible, tomboyish girl children: bossy to her peers, frank to adults and possessed of an uncompromising dignity that frequently brings her grief. “It’s awful being a child,” her most astute great-aunt commiserates, “at the mercy of other people,” and that’s especially true for this child. Twelve years after her brother’s death, Harriet’s sister Allison is sweet, pretty and dreamy in the wilting mode of Southern femininity, but Harriet is no Scarlett O’Hara: “She argued with Edie and checked out library books on Genghis Khan and gave her mother headaches.” She is the sort of child who, when asked by a Bible class teacher to write down her summer goals, hands in a piece of paper with a single black dot on it — that’s how the pirates in “Treasure Island” informed a man they intended to kill him. In short, she is an irresistible character, and the engine that drives the book.
What makes Harriet go is her determination to penetrate the mystery of loss, though she’d say that she just wants to solve her brother’s murder. It’s a slightly abstract mission. To her, Robin is a legend, like the old plantation house her formerly grand family once owned; a memorial stained-glass window in the neighborhood church depicts her brother in conversation with Jesus (“Suffer the little children …”), putting him in the mythic company of the explorers and conquerors Harriet loves to read about. Despite Harriet’s vow to identify her brother’s killer, “The Little Friend” isn’t really a detective story. She soon settles on a culprit, Danny Ratliff, the scion of a local clan of trailer-dwelling petty criminals, and enlists Hely, a worshipful but none-too-bright male playmate, in her quest for vengeance. Hely suggests putting sugar in the guy’s gas tank; Harriet says, “I want to kill him.” She may not fully appreciate what that means, but she’s the kind of kid who just might succeed at it anyway.
Harriet’s schemes re-link her family’s fate to that of the Ratliffs, whose forebears worked as sharecroppers for the Cleves. The eldest of the Ratliff brothers, Farish, makes and sells crystal methamphetamine, the cash crop of truly scary rednecks, and Danny helps out. (A third brother, born again in prison, runs a shabby mission where he entertains a visiting snake handler.) The two speeding brothers get increasingly strung out as the novel goes along, with the spectacularly paranoid Farish edging ever closer to a terrible explosion. Naturally, Harriet’s antics make matters worse.
Tartt juxtaposes the two families — the smoldering, aggrieved Ratliffs and Harriet with her posse of eccentric aunties — to often very funny effect, although the humor here is stinging, not fond. Neither portrait flatters its subject much; the Cleves treat their black servants thoughtlessly and tend to dither (“Well, it’s not as if we’re going to the Belgian Congo! They sell Sanka in the city of Charleston, there’s no reason for her to haul a great big jar of it in her suitcase!”) while the Ratliffs execute the dreadful, age-old dance of domestic violence to a tempo made jangly by modern chemistry.
Meanwhile, Harriet stumbles through a whole series of the rude awakenings that lead to growing up: closer encounters with death and grief, disillusioning realizations about the competence and fairness of the adults she once trusted. These are grave blows to such an implacable spirit, less because they wound Harriet than because they force her to accept her own vulnerability.
Tartt builds this, the coming-of-age element of “The Little Friend,” with meticulous care, as she does the more adventurous aspects of the story, and it’s in trying to do full justice to both that she slows the novel down. There was always an irritating grain of the preposterous in “The Secret History,” but it’s been polished out of “The Little Friend”; even a scene involving a king cobra, a highway overpass and a Trans-Am feels utterly credible. The cost is a meandering feeling as the book repeatedly shifts gears.
However, this is a problem of pacing, not of design; neither strand of the story is disposable, and they interlock in rich and surprising ways. Tartt’s plotting, as always, is exceptionally intricate and graceful, with several scenes of acute suspense toward the book’s end. Most contemporary literary novelists don’t know how to construct a story and don’t see much need to learn; it’s regarded as a louche concern more relevant to authors of commercial fiction.
Perhaps it’s Tartt’s fascination with action and its consequences that gets her past that bugaboo. If Harriet echoes the prepubescent Southern heroines of Carson McCullers and Harper Lee, the real patron saint of “The Little Friend” is Flannery O’Connor, a similarly tough-minded and ironic assessor of human error and hubris. It’s not a comparison likely to have been prompted by “The Secret History,” but in retrospect, both of Tartt’s novels share O’Connor’s sardonic moral curiosity and preoccupation with will, fate and guilt.
Then there’s the hoodoo — and no amount of influence-tracking can account for that. Whatever the weaknesses of “The Little Friend,” Tartt writes like someone for whom novels are literally a matter of life and death, or perhaps more accurately, a working substitute for either one — and under the influence of her sorcery, I can just about believe it.