by Christopher Rice
Published by Miramax Books
Published August 23, 2000
288 pgs. • Find on WorldCat
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
September 29, 2009
I was absorbed in Christopher Rice’s first novel, The Density of Souls, was first published in 2000 when the author was 21 years old.
The Gothic romance aspect of the book and the sinister and stifling New Orleans atmosphere (especially that of Lafayette Cemetery with its above-ground burials) bring his mother (that would be Anne Rice) to mind. The queer-baited protagonist, Stephen Conlin, is the son of a poet who committed suicide before Stephen was born (too fine for this world in the view of his touch lowborn Irish wife).
I hope that Christopher’s elite high school (Cannon) experiences of ostracism by his former friends (stereotypically nasty homophobic jocks Greg Darby and Brandon Charbonnet) were not similar to Stephen’s during the 1990s. Christopher definitely came from an intact family, but the gay son of a poet who killed himself cannot avoid qualms about oedipal dramas in the Rice family in which mother is the success, father the vastly less-read and less-famous poet (Stan)! (In an interview, Christopher stated “I’ve never gone overboard because I have such a strong family life.”)
In addition to chronicling many sadistic rituals of adolescents and lots of “casual” cruelties, Rice whips up a hyper-melodramatic climax, set against a major hurricane. The pre-Katrina imaginings of evacuation and destruction has additional interest now. Although CR did not foresee the incompetence of government response, he did mention the dissatisfactions of those who took shelter in the Dome.
There are a lot of haunted characters, including the former grade-school friends who diverged radically in high school (the two football players savagely turning on Stephen, the bulimic young alcoholic Meredith also betraying their childhood friendship. She and a hard-to-believe compensatory character come through for him, and not one but two star quarterbacks from Cannon fall in love with him.
Monica, Stephen’s mother, cannot protect him at high school but seeks to be protective of her hypersensitive son. He does not use her to procure studs for himself, unlike Sebastian’s mother in a more melodramatic Garden District opus, Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly, Last Summer.” There is less hysteria here, though in addition to the suicide in the background of the sensitive man, there is murder, hate crimes, alcoholism, bulimia, class bitchery, and even a touch of incest (though their shared bloodline is unknown to the pair).
Though sometimes feeling the prose was overripe (in the Southern Gothic tradition), I was carried along as I had been, once upon a time, by Interview with a Vampire (and by Dreamboy). Though the narrative is very discontinuous in revealing various sins of the past, I did not think that the writing itself was “jerky” as some complained. (There are no vampires or witches, btw, though a questioning/gay teenager has a more difficult time than some of his mother’s aberrant creations have had.)
- Pros: narrative drive
- Cons: Bell Tower is literally “over the top”, and the villains are one-dimensional (with a guilty secret)
- The Bottom Line: Overly melodramatic ending to a chronicle of a queer-baited/-bashed youth in New Orleans of the 1990s
© 29 September 2009, Stephen O. Murray