15 June, 2003Issue 2.3FictionNorth America

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Donna Tartt’s Confused Little Friend

Sara Galvan

Donna Tartt
The Little Friend
Bloomsbury, 2002
555 pages

The best writers from the American South use the unique burdens of the region’s past – the ghosts of slavery, economic isolation, and social stagnation – as dramatic undercurrents for their fiction. Southerner Donna Tartt struggles, but fails, to harness the region’s dark power in her sophomore effort The Little Friend, a coming-of-age murder mystery set in the fictional small-town of Alexandria, Mississippi.

The prologue of The Little Friend details the murder of nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes, the much-loved scion of one of the town’s elegantly declining founding families. The Cleves do not care to determine the killer’s identity; they cannot even talk about the child’s death.

Tartt’s story takes place twelve years later, by which time the sad effects of Robin’s murder have utterly enfeebled the family. His grandmother Edie has hardened her heart and, as the Cleves’ shrewd matriarch, dominates her elderly sisters, her daughter Charlotte, and her two grandchildren. Dixon Dufresnes, Charlotte’s husband, has moved to Nashville, taken a mistress, and in all but name abandoned his family. Charlotte rarely leaves her bedroom and is entirely dependent on her remaining children, Allison and Harriet.

While Allison retreats into the dual teenage comforts of her boyfriend and her pillow, twelve-year-old Harriet barrels into adolescence. Introduced as a ‘heavy, somber infant with a headful of black hair who never cried’, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes becomes Tartt’s unlikely heroine: she confronts the source of her family’s demise by pledging to solve the mystery of her brother’s death. While Harriet’s investigation drives the action of The Little Friend, the emergence of Harriet’s independent spirit is its true interest.

As she attempts to develop both strains, however, Tartt falls short. From a promising prologue, the novel degenerates into plodding description punctuated by bursts of implausible action. The most explosive scenes involve the Ratliff brothers, a clan of backward trailer folk who run a methamphetamine lab in their compound outside town.

Harriet and her bumbling sidekick Hely Hull have fingered Danny Ratliff, a classmate of Robin’s, as his murderer. Resolved to avenge her brother by killing Danny, Harriet masterminds a plot to steal a king cobra from a roaming tent preacher. After a mishap with the cobra lands the Ratliffs’ grandmother in the hospital, Harriet flees Alexandria for Christian summer camp. She returns home early for the funeral of her great aunt, where Danny spies on her. A few days later, he chases her across town; only the Dufresnes’ kindly gardener, Chester, helps her hide. In the final action scene, which involves a water tower, a drug stash, two guns, and a murder, Harriet comes face-to-face with the Ratliffs – and she is nearly killed herself.

When not concocting fantastical scenarios, Tartt draws out the sleepy awakening of Harriet’s adolescence. Here, she finds solid ground, taking from her own experiences as a youth in Greenwood, Mississippi. At once innocent and worldly, Harriet bemoans the change in her adolescent body, struggles with the social and religious strictures of Alexandria, and begins to realise her inner strength.

Her relationships with family and friends exhibit the vulnerability of a child and the capability of an adult. When Charlotte proposes to fire Ida Rhew Brownlee, the girls’ housekeeper and surrogate mother, young Harriet comes to terms with Ida’s departure too late:

    For the rest of her life, Harriet would remember with a wince that she hadn’t been brave enough to stay for one last afternoon – the very last one! – to sit at the foot of Ida’s chair with her head on Ida’s knees. What might they have talked of? She would never know… But, most of all, it would pain her that she’d been too proud to tell Ida that she loved her.

She falls into deep melancholy again when Hely’s attention is diverted from their investigation to the school’s marching band and when he seems unphased by the prospect of their attending different schools. Such sensitivities give the determined Harriet a believable, human dimension.

Despite its length, Tartt’s work seldom develops other characters so richly. As much as she publicly declines the ‘Southern’ mantle, she liberally borrows from its more worthy bearers. The Cleves’ abandoned family estate, Tribulation, rises from Margaret Mitchell’s Tara, though Charlotte Cleve is less Scarlett O’Hara than Blanche DuBois. Long-time servant and companion Odean seems little more than the stock ‘African-American maid’ figure familiar from Southern literary history. Curtis Ratliff, the mildly retarded youngest brother of Danny and Farish, is the requisite grotesque figure (The Sound and the Fury, anyone?), dispensing bits of wisdom like ‘Snakes … bite’.

Hely, who secretly admires Harriet, recalls Harper Lee’s Dill Harris, a Mississippi boy who fancies his Alabaman summertime neighbor Scout. Indeed, Harriet herself exhibits the precocious innocence of Scout Finch and the mischievous resourcefulness of Tom Sawyer. And the inspirations for nosy neighbors like Grace Fountain, traveling preachers and proselytising camp counselors, and filthy social outcasts such as the Ratliffs are too numerous to name.

When not lifting from her predecessors, Tartt offers melodramatic and vague particulars. Of a recurring nightmare of Danny’s, she writes: ‘Terrible as it was, he could never quite remember the details when he woke up, no people or situations … but only the astonishment of being sucked into a blind, breathless emptiness: struggles, dark wingbeats, terror’; in another scene, he is ‘jangled to the backbone with nerves, horrors, premonitions’; in another he ‘lay awake in a delirium of terror … a shrill eerie voice from its hiding place high above the town’; and so on.

For Harriet, home feels ‘eerie’, ‘lurid’, ‘ghastly’, ‘shadowy’, ‘vacuum-sealed’, ‘violent’, ‘noisy’, and ‘as if [inhabited] by the very Devil’ all at once. Such saturated descriptions create not suspense but frustration. Furthermore, the novel’s dullest characters are unworthy of the lucid interior monologues Tartt gives them; drug-addled Danny Ratliff, who only sometimes pieces together intelligible sentences, muses: ‘Alexandria: flat and desolate, a circuit of repeating street signs, a giant train set. The sense of unreality was what got you after a while. Airless streets, colorless skies. Buildings empty, only pasteboard and sham. And if you drive long enough, he thought, you always ended up right back where you started.’

Tartt captures the desolation of Alexandria, though she leaves it an empty stage: her main characters operate in virtual isolation, and five hundred pages fail to evoke the rich tapestry of town life.

She will not (with The Little Friend, anyway) join the company of Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor. In failing to capture the dark rhythms and Gothic moods of her native Mississippi, Donna Tartt – who has lived in Vermont, Virginia, and New York for most of her adult life – seems like a writer who strayed too far from home.

Sara C. Galvan, an architect by training and a fifth-generation Texan, studies urban history at Magdalen College, Oxford.