Aside from genre writers, there are only two living American novelists I think are excellent: Tom Wolfe and Donna Tartt… and Tartt’s actually a crime writer when you come right down to it. When the Wall Street Journal asked me to name five top psychological crime novels, I listed her powerful 1992 debut The Secret History among that elite group:
Some critics balk at its gravity and sprawl, but I love “The Secret History” for its scope of vision, its precise characterization and its beautiful prose. Richard Papen hopes to leave his working-class origins behind when he enrolls at an exclusive college in Vermont. There, he is soon accepted into an elegant clique that centers on a charismatic Classics professor. But the group’s immersion in ancient culture leads them to a moment of Bacchic ecstasy and murder. Erudite and compelling, the book is at once a riveting crime story and, I suspect, a meditation on the famous snowstorm scene in Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain”: a coming-to-terms with the cornerstone of human savagery on which even the greatest civilization stands.
When her second book, The Little Friend, came out in 2002, I just couldn’t get through it. I couldn’t tell whether she was a one-hit wonder or was going through a sophomore slump.
Last year, Tartt, a slow, meticulous writer, scored the Pulitzer Prize with her third novel, The Goldfinch. I just finished it. It’s wonderful, worthy of the praise. A riveting picaresque tale of a young boy orphaned in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it follows Theo Decker into adulthood and explores the ways in which trauma can define a life. The prose is beautiful; the scenes so vivid you feel like you’re there; and the characters at once brilliantly original and strangely recognizable. What a talent she is.
Conservatives be warned: there’s one idiotic sentence that attributes the terrorist attack to right wingers. As if. In real life, only Muslims would have done such a thing. I don’t know whether this is a flaw of political correctness or whether Tartt’s imagination has been polluted by the leftist literary world. Anyway, it’s one sentence: it bugged me, but it doesn’t affect the story.
Now. Here’s a bet I want to make, a prediction I want to get down on paper so I can refer back to it and say I told you so. As wonderful as Tartt’s novels can be, I do not believe she will write her masterpiece until she finds Christ. That’s an arrogant and terrible thing to say in some ways. I don’t know anything about the woman’s religious life. Maybe she’s already a Christian. More probably, if anyone made this prediction to her face, she’d laugh it off or hit the roof. But let’s wait and see. I certainly don’t believe great writers have to be Christians! That would be nuts. But I do believe some people see the moral world in such a way (clearly, in my opinion) that only Christ can, so to speak, touch the match to the gunpowder.
As I say, we’ll see. But in the meantime, The Goldfinch is a deep and fascinating read.