Novelists never tire of imagining homicidal maniacs, though I sometimes wish they would. Or at least quit making them all so damn literate. Take the ”old and peculiar” madman who narrates A.M. Homes’ much-hyped The End of Alice. Locked away for 23 years in an upstate New York prison — and sequestered in a wing reserved for violent sex offenders — this ”voracious pedophile” writes and talks and thinks as though he’s swallowed both the Oxford English Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. Not only that, we’re told that he’s read more than 4,000 books since his confinement and written over 14,000 letters. He’s smart! He’s crafty! He’s existential! And if you believe in this guy, there’s a famous bridge to Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
The author of two earlier novels (Jack, In a Country of Mothers) and a collection of short stories (The Safety of Objects), Homes specializes in obsession, filigreeing her highly self-conscious fiction with dark, edgy erotica. But while her craft in Alice is just as solid as ever, her celebrated powers of invention feel all tapped out. Homes can artfully shape her aging prisoner’s cell-block observations, fractured memories, and predatory fantasies into a seamless ugly narrative; she just can’t, or deliberately won’t, make it into a persuasive one.
As the novel opens, our unnamed shoe salesman-turned-child killer (in 1971, he stabbed and decapitated a horrid nymphet named Alice Somerfield in a motel room) has recently begun a creepy correspondence with a 19-year-old female college sophomore, also unnamed. Comfortably but unhappily suburban, the young woman keeps writing letters to him about her ferocious attraction to a pubescent neighborhood boy. Does she want the notorious convict’s advice? Hard to tell. (He offers it anyway.) Does she feel a kinship with him? Absolutely. Does she intend to kill the youthful object of her desire? Maybe. Maybe not.
So smitten is the prisoner by his new pen pal (who refuses, by the way, to send him her photograph) that he begins to mentally riff on all the secret things she tells him. ”Fact or fiction,” he says, ”her hot air has landed on me like the breath of a bellows, has aroused my flame, made my embers glow. I have come back to life…. Is the telling of her tale meant to mock and tease or to tempt me with a sticky, sweet treat?”
While the question of the young woman’s motivation remains unanswered, her scary and belligerent boy-toy scenarios gradually but insistently become mixed up and confused with the convict’s own painful recollections of childhood abuse, irresistible appetites, and savage murder. (In one passage, he remembers poor slaughtered Alice ”in pieces, splattered around the room. Rivers of blood form small tidal pools.” Et cetera galore.)
Yet the more we learn, or seem to learn, about the two correspondents (his beauty-queen mother seduced him; she likes zoos, puppet shows, and eating kiddie scabs), the less weight — and even lesser credibility — they have as characters. That, and not its graphic sex, is the most perverse thing about Homes’ novel. But you needn’t be politically or morally aligned with either Andrea Dworkin or Pat Buchanan to find those adult/child sex scenes distasteful and monstrous.
By the time the end finally comes to The End of Alice, all the violence, pathology, and prison claustrophobia have ceased to have any real effect because the novel has long since revealed itself as a calculated literary game. And the reader is left with nothing more than the sour, embarrassing memory of an attempted tour de force that fell smack on its face. D
An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks
Sacks — the neurologist whose most famous book, Awakenings, was made into the movie starring Robin Williams — finds great inspiration in the seven remarkable men and women he profiles here. A