THE LIVES OF THE DEAD By Charlie Smith Linden Press/Simon and Schuster 381 pp. $19.95
THERE IS NOT much a brief review can do to convey the experience of reading Charlie Smith's disturbing, demanding, often exasperating, but finally extraordinary new novel, The Lives of the Dead. A mere plot and character summary would not capture the tropical lushness of the prose, and to invoke its literary lineage (Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, with a little Walker Percy thrown in) would not do justice to its often startling originality. But I'll do what I can.
The novel, Smith's third, is narrated by Buddy Drake, a once-successful screenwriter whose violent films were popular with both drive-in patrons and the art house crowd. Now, however, he can no longer get his films financed, and he travels the American South, simultaneously writing his latest screenplay, researching it and trying to raise the money to make it. This last he attempts to do by hitting up his well-to-do ex-wife Bess (the second wife of three) and her borderline schizophrenic brother R.B. at their family estate in Florida. Other characters intrude via flashbacks -- Van, the director of Buddy's scripts; Celest, his current wife and mother of his daughter; his long-dead father -- but the events at Bess's farm are at the center of the narrative.
At the same time we see extended sequences from Buddy's work-in-progress, not in screenplay form, but virtually as a novel within the novel. The main characters are D'Nel Boyd, an icily charismatic serial killer; his lover Molly; and Molly's childhood sweetheart Bantling "Banty" Jakes, who tracks D'Nel and Molly on their killing spree, hoping to win Molly back.
What ties these two plot lines together is the fact that Buddy, a participant in one and author of the other, is slowly becoming unhinged, the violence in his work leaking into his life. While there isn't space to list all of Buddy's behavioral quirks, suffice it to say that he has sex with Celest only by means of phone fantasy, that he once nearly stabbed Bess to death, and that D'Nel may or may not be a real person.
This might sound like modern Southern Gothic a` la Barry Hannah, or even pseudo-Southern Gothic a` la David Lynch, but The Lives of the Dead largely avoids the gothic through its refusal to lapse into hip irony. While often very funny, the novel is written with an unfashionable passion and moral seriousness, which makes its extremely dark conclusion even more disturbing. Buddy's despair is not the suburban ennui of the K-Mart school, but is reminiscent rather of a profounder literature, a despair Raskolnikov might have recognized.
And yet, while Smith's literary influences are plain, he takes his characters into new territory. D'Nel stands in direct descent from O'Connor's misfit, but his harrowing rejection of redemption goes beyond even the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": "I offer you knowledge; I offer you the irresistible secret; I offer you complicity. We hate civilization, we hate love, we hate order, we hate God and all his sticky works . . . that's the secret, my friend, that's the rune written on the heart of the world. We don't believe any of it, and we don't want to believe."
Which brings us to the prose. This is a difficult book to find your way into; Right from the start the prose loops and accumulates and thickens in a way that begs comparison with Faulkner. At times this density and difficulty seem unnecessary, as a landscape description or a minor character who never appears again are given the full Absalom, Absalom! treatment; you feel sometimes as if you're hacking your way through kudzu. But then, just when you're about to give up, you come across a passage of breathtaking insight and clarity, a passage, furthermore -- and this is important -- that depends on the difficult thicket of prose that came before.
As Bharati Mukherjee wrote about The Satanic Verses, a good book must be perfect, but a great one can stumble. The Lives of the Dead may not yet be Charlie Smith's great book -- while Faulkner and Dostoevski saw, or at least looked for, redemption even at the brink, Smith takes Buddy all the way down and leaves him there -- but it certainly has greatness in it. It is one of those rare novels that refuses to accommodate itself to the reader (or to literary fashion), but which slowly teaches us how to read anew, if we are willing to let it. One can jog through most novels these days, even serious ones; The Lives of the Dead must be walked, slowly, but it is a harrowing, passionate, powerfully written and unflinchingly honest book, well worth the trip. James Hynes is the author of "The Wild Colonial Boy."