According to the U.S. Department of Buzz, Donna Tartt's second novel is the most eagerly anticipated book of the year. Fair enough: In 1992, her first, ''The Secret History,'' surfed a 50-foot wave of hype with aplomb. A tale of ecstatic sex, ritual death, and muddled retribution at a New England liberal arts college, it was a best-seller with both Quality Lit cred and Brat Pack chic, and though it went wobbly in the middle and soggy at the end, its sleek sentences offered wit and moral weight.
The Little Friend, however, wipes out. It is an extended prose catastrophe. My personal favorite howler is lodged on page 511: ''Steam rose from the hot, verdant ground. Far below, in the weeds, the Trans Am was hunched in a disturbing, confidential stillness, raindrops shimmering on the hood in a fine white mist....'' In its mingling of the emptily precious and the indiscriminately ominous, the passage typifies the pretension of this incoherent melodrama.
The disorder first manifests itself as bad Faulkner. In laying out the history of an Alexandria, Miss., family called the Cleves, Tartt gives the brood such a gothic relationship with the past that Harriet, our 12-year-old heroine, recognizes a light in an old photograph that is ''fractured, sentimental, incandescent with disaster'' and, moreover, deduces from the cracked Dutch tiles on the front steps of the Cleves' ruined old homestead -- a house named Tribulation -- that the building must have ''glowed with the phosphorescence and splendor of dream itself.''
The family tragedy that starts the book and lives as a gruesome memory, ''which flared at the smell of wisteria'' (not to be confused with ''the fusty, drunken perfume of the magnolias'' or the ''rich, warm, boozy smell'' of ''the moth-pale gardenia blossoms''), happens one Mother's Day. Robin, Charlotte Cleve Dufresnes' only son, goes missing for a few minutes. And because a lightning storm is coming and a gospel song on the radio announces that ''Jesus is calling,'' he is, of course, found murdered, hanging by his neck from a tree. By that point, black smoke is pouring out of the stove.
Years pass and it's the early '70s. Robin's younger sister, Harriet, an infant at the time of the unsolved crime, is now a smart, precocious, back-talking preteen. She decides, as a kind of summer project, to avenge Robin's death. On the strength of interviews with her best friend's older brother and the family maid, a mammy stereotype named Ida Rhew, she concludes that the culprit is Danny Ratliff, a drug-trafficking, speed-freak ex-con. Most everyone unfit for membership in the Alexandria Country Club speaks in a labored Southern dialect (''Let me borry a quarter''), Danny included, yet he still entertains interior monologues along the lines of ''[I want to ask her] lots of things.... Like why do you brush and flitter against my windows at night like a death's-head moth?''
By the time Danny enters the novel, Tartt has shifted from the long sentences of the opening to a more brisk overripeness. She is loose with adverbs. Characters say things ''soberly,'' ''belligerently,'' ''faintly,'' and ''impassively,'' while exhaling ''audibly'' and stuffing bills into pockets ''laboriously.'' That's just page 204. Laughingly, I turned to discover Danny twisting ''rather spasmodically.'' Dumbfoundedly, I wondered how a mosquito might sting someone ''luxuriously.'' Such prose events disqualify ''The Little Friend'' as literature and also rule it out as decent trash. It's hard to dive into an action scene when people running for their lives turn to notice ''the path they'd beaten through the yellow-flowered scraggle of bitterweed, and the melancholy pastels of the dropped lunchbox....''
It is harder yet to buy characters as inconsistent as these. In a scene meant to demonstrate Harriet's emerging consciousness of mortality -- via the death of her cat, Weenie -- we read that ''the vertigo of the moment'' would ''never wholly leave her''; 20 pages later, this becomes merely ''the recent unpleasantness of the dead cat.'' The novel's construction is no more thoughtful: With her Harry Houdini epigraph, the author's telegraphing of the climax begins before the story does.
Tartt's workhorse adjectives are ''dreamy,'' ''mysterious,'' ''hazy,'' ''delicate,'' ''gloomy,'' ''spooky,'' ''dim,'' and -- dozens and dozens of times -- ''strange'' and ''vague,'' a clue that she has strained hard, at the expense of plot and character, to create an air of unreality and has achieved...a strained unreality. Who could have anticipated that ''The Little Friend'' would be the most eagerly overwrought book of the year?