Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion
ISBN: 0-7858-6646-2
It was a dark and stormy night. Okay, not really. 
     But Christopher Rice’s 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 Greg’s fortune is uncommon, suicide in such a situation is at least understandable. Less reasonable is Greg’s best friend’s 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 of Souls is a more complex look at sexual awakening with an added dynamic: the final, and most important, character in Mr. Rice’s quartet is a young man struggling with his homosexuality. Mr. Rice’s 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 pleasures—and 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 Jordan’s 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 child’s experience to be strictly fiction. But doesn’t 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 success. 
     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. It’s the sort of ambivalent ending he won’t 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 let’s 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 maturity. 
     More serious than these typical first-effort errors is a devotion on the part of Mr. Rice’s publisher to accentuating his relation to another, more revered, Rice. Half of the book jacket’s spare biography is consumed with making sure the unknowing buyer makes the connection with Anne Rice, the author’s mother and the creator of such horror tales as Interview with the Vampire. Though it is clear that this book stands on its own merits, everything from the book design to the author’s website is influenced by the publisher’s hopes of capitalizing upon Ms. Rice’s fame. The loser in all of this is Mr. Rice, whose wholehearted novel’s authority is undermined by inevitable questions of authenticity. Is Christopher Rice another Jeff Shaara, destined to write in his parent’s shadow? 
     For his sake, the reader hopes Mr. Rice is able to overcome this handicap in disguise. A Density of Souls is a challenging first work which highlights the best aspects of a promising new author’s skill. As a coming-of-age tale it is not up there with Portrait of the Artist or the like. But Mr. Rice makes clear that he has the talent to go far—if only his parsimonious cohorts will allow him room to breathe.