Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I had no idea. I knew there was a lot of drug use in the eighties. I was in the Navy, and a good number of my friends and acquaintances were druggies. Certainly a number of them were heavy drinkers. I never took illicit drugs, but I have been known to tip a few, and still do. But I had no idea that the focus of virtually every college student was the acquisition, use, and perhaps distribution of, illegal narcotics. Constantly. All the time. That is the impression one gets from reading Infinite Jest, and the subject of this review, The Secret History.

As I mentioned in my review of that book, I hated Infinite Jest. But I enjoyed The Secret History. Both stories are about college kids in the pre-cellphone age. In both novels the characters and everyone they know are drug users to some extent. They drank (no problem) and they smoked (yuk). Incessantly. I find smoking disgusting and horrifying. The characters smoked so much that I feared getting lung cancer from reading The Secret History. But I liked it. Why? I think the answer is that the characters in The Secret History had the redeeming characteristic of being intellectual. Students of history, literature, and languages. The characters in Infinite Jest were stupid jocks (is that redundant?) I therefore was able to identify with the characters, at least at that level. We had two things in common: an interest in intellectual pursuits, and booze. That was enough to get me over the hump.

The Secret History is about a group of college students at some schmancy Vermont college who are in a special class where only a few students are accepted, where they have only one professor for all their subjects (except French) and where they are engaged in the ethereal task of learning ancient Greek and Latin, amongst other highfaluting subjects.

They are all a little eccentric, as is the teacher, and most of them are rich, with the exception of our narrator. One night, when some members of the group are out on some sort of drug induced vision quest, they encounter something they believe to be a farmer, and scrap with it. They are so out of their minds that they don’t really know what happens. Actually, the author never does come out and tell you, but it can be inferred from a few clues. Read carefully. They form the opinion that they killed this farmer. One of those not involved in this murder becomes aware of it. They fear that he will rat them out, either by actually talking to the police, or by running his drunken mouth. So they decide to do away with him. The story deals with events leading up to that murder, and the aftermath of it, and how they deal with it.

I enjoyed the book. I thought it was too long, but it was not the soul smashing burden to read that Atlas Shrugged and even The Fountainhead were, but it weighed in at over 500 pages of small print. Could have been shorter. But it was well done enough for that not to have been a big problem. The writing was smooth and clear.

There were two things I didn’t like. One, there was a prologue. I have come to hate prologues. And from the get go, we know that these people kill one of their own. The author tells us right up front. And you know how. Might have been better if she left it up in the air until the deed is done. Two, there is a bit of a hole in the story. After the boy they murder is discovered missing,  the FBI showed up, and appeared to be involved with the investigation of a small town disappearance and, and later (when the body is found) murder. The FBI would have no jurisdiction. In this type of matter. It’s a state law issue. Yet, none of these smarty pants even asked the question. Now, I know they were painted as some sort of geniuses who were above the mundane world relating to federal jurisdiction, but once the FBI got on the scene, one of them should have gone and checked what the heck the FBI did. That issue was touched on, and the agents themselves said they had no jurisdiction in the crime at hand (to the surprise of the protagonist and his compatriots), but none of our group of real smart friends questioned it. We are never really told why they were there. It seemed to me to be a thread that was dropped.

Outside of that, the story went quickly, was well written, and entertaining. I give it four stars. I dock it a star only because of the smoking. They all smoked all the time. I know that at the time there were few restrictions on smoking, but give it a rest. One or two guys constantly lighting up, blowing smoke, rubbing the horrible thing out in the ashtray is enough. But all of them? All the time and everywhere. In their rooms, in restaurants, during conversation, while out walking, while eating, while drinking, while studying, while doing anything or going anywhere. It got to be tiresome. I realize that part of it was to provide gestures for the characters during dialogue, but what’s wrong with rubbing an eye, or scratching a chin? There was less smoking in Atlas Shrugged, and that was written in the 40s.


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