was a dark and stormy night.
Okay, not really.
But Christopher Rices poignant
debut novel, A Density of Souls,
does begin with the, well,
ominous line: Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads
and continues in sometimes flat and sometimes magnificent prose
to tell the story of Louisiana teenagers caught in a web of fraternal
lust, familial love, and mindless jealousy.
Against a backdrop slathered in the
history and tradition of New Orleans, four young people are forced
to come to terms with the darker aspects of human nature. Meredith,
a typically confused young woman searching for a place to belong,
chooses to sacrifice her body to bulimia in order to join the in-crowd.
Finding no fulfillment in popularity and abused by her football-player
boyfriend, Greg, Meredith spirals into the clutch of drunken binges
that eventually put her close to death.
But death, a routine escape for young
novelists, is used and not abused in A Density of Souls
Suffice to say a tragic fate does meet Greg, but only after his
younger brother is crushed beneath the wheels of a truck. If Gregs
fortune is uncommon, suicide in such a situation is at least understandable.
Less reasonable is Gregs best friends reaction to the
tragedy. Brandon joins a hate group which will play an important
role in the development of the final third of the novel.
Yet Mr. Rice does not permit us the
painless luxury of such an indifferent tale. Instead, A Density
is a more complex look at sexual awakening with an
added dynamic: the final, and most important, character in Mr. Rices
quartet is a young man struggling with his homosexuality. Mr. Rices
portrait of Jordan is unflinching, sometimes painful in its honesty.
Here is the typical outcast, here is the typical scattering of childhood
playmates, here is the typical sacrifice of simple pleasuresand
at what cost? Jordan lives in the shadow of his dead father, a quasi-accomplished
poet perhaps most revered by his wife. But the reverence is laced
with dread and Jordan eventually must assure his mother he will
not take his own life, as his father did. The pair lives in a house
where the memory of a dead man keeps company in an untouched study,
surrounded by drafts of his work. It is a strange image, and the
reader senses it is true to life. What hurt compelled Mr. Rice to
paint an all too accurate picture of perpetual grief?
Thus home, a dark place as stagnant
as any bayou, is another challenge to Jordans attempts to
break free of his appointed role. His mother accepts his sexuality,
as does Meredith, though she will not help him face disapproving
elements in their community. But Greg and Brandon, who discovered
early in their days as playmates that sex games involving Jordan
were surprisingly pleasing, lash out as a result of conflicting
emotions. Greg turns into the aforementioned abusive jock, while
Brandon allows a depression inspired by the dispatch of his sidekick
and, one senses, protector, to tip him over an emotional ledge.
This is not the whole story of A
Density of Souls
, though it is enough to say that most of the
characters get their just desserts, including a reconciliation between
Jordan and Meredith. What is most important is the honesty with
which Mr. Rice pushes his characters into peril and hatemongering.
It is too close to the actuality of every childs experience
to be strictly fiction. But doesnt the best fiction serve
to illuminate the dark corners of everyday life? A writer of strong
character and unceasing devotion to his craft is required to so
accurately tell such a story, and at that Mr. Rice is an unqualified
Yet there are problems with his rendition,
not the least of which is a deus ex machina storm that allows several
characters to right somewhat manufactured situations. Its
the sort of ambivalent ending he wont be allowed to get away
with in subsequent attempts, and is a disconcerting departure from
the realism of the rest of the work. Troublesome, though understandable,
is an ignorance of the differences time wrests between the young
and old. For better or worse, that is a fault which will be corrected
by the passage of time. But lets not go into the all-too-cute
final page, which leaves Jordan in the arms of a male lover whom
his mother knows to be his half-brother. This is a regretful lapse
in good judgement which precludes praise for an otherwise perfect
More serious than these typical first-effort
errors is a devotion on the part of Mr. Rices publisher to
accentuating his relation to another, more revered, Rice. Half of
the book jackets spare biography is consumed with making sure
the unknowing buyer makes the connection with Anne Rice, the authors
mother and the creator of such horror tales as Interview with
. Though it is clear that this book stands on its
own merits, everything from the book design to the authors
website is influenced by the publishers hopes of capitalizing
upon Ms. Rices fame. The loser in all of this is Mr. Rice,
whose wholehearted novels authority is undermined by inevitable
questions of authenticity. Is Christopher Rice another Jeff Shaara,
destined to write in his parents shadow?
For his sake, the reader hopes Mr.
Rice is able to overcome this handicap in disguise. A Density
is a challenging first work which highlights the best
aspects of a promising new authors skill. As a coming-of-age
tale it is not up there with Portrait of the Artist
like. But Mr. Rice makes clear that he has the talent to go farif
only his parsimonious cohorts will allow him room to breathe.