Nobody, it seems, says no to publishing's shiniest superstar. After selling 450 million copies of her justly beloved Harry Potter books, Rowling could pen a Proust-size ode to her toenails and editors would line up to publish it. She wrote a 500-page novel for grown-ups? Great! It's got sex and heroin and characters who say things like ''you useless f---in' smackhead cow''? Uh, okay. It's about buffoons bickering over a minor government job in rural England? Huh. If you say so...
The Casual Vacancy, Rowling's overlong but often entertaining debut adult novel, is a big book that follows small people jockeying for a little position in tiny Pagford. When one of the community's 16 parish councillors dies, a bunch of town notables try to use the ensuing ''casual vacancy'' to pursue various agendas. Rowling does a nice job laying out her characters' pretensions and weaknesses, which she punctures with gleeful flicks of a sharp comic blade.
But mixed in with this cutting comedy is a more serious book that tackles questions of class, poverty, and politics, and it's here that The Casual Vacancy falters. Some of Pagford's residents want to fob a housing project off on neighboring Yarvil, and whoever fills the open seat could influence the council's decision. Rowling offers a convincing portrait of underclass misery, but she gets lost in the details of a who-cares election that boils down to a contest among equally disagreeable candidates. ''So will voters go for the c--t,'' as one character puts it, ''or the t--t?''
Rowling seems determined to distance herself from the innocent pleasures of wizards and Quidditch, and The Casual Vacancy piles on the unpleasantness rape, child abuse, suicide, self-mutilation, mental illness. It's all just too much: When the novel finally arrives at its predictable and heavy-handed ending, what started as a lively comedy of manners has turned into an overwrought slog. B-