Simon & Schuster.
236 pages. $19. Marcy Heidish gets "The Torching" off to a fine, goose-pimply beginning as Alice Grey, a novelist and bookstore owner, dreams of shadowy figures with torches, smells smoke and hears a high-pitched wailing. And wakes from her dream to find smoke alarms shrieking for no reason.
Alice has been writing a novel about a midwife in Southern Maryland during the Colonial period: Evangeline Smith was accused of murder and witchcraft when a mutilated body was found in her chimney, and the townspeople burned her house down, with her in it. Alice has been planning to portray Evangeline as handmaiden to the devil, but now she decides something wants her to set the record straight. She decides to rewrite.
Then she finds a body, mutilated in the same way, in her owhouse. And then she's denounced by her other friends, much as Evangeline was denounced by hers. Still, she rewrites. And rewrites, bludgeoning the suspense away.
Besides, she keeps going off, alone, to investigate murders pasand present. And if she's not spooked, why should we be? The author wraps it all up in spirits' wings at the end, but by then it's just too late for ghosts, friendly or otherwise. Academics have bemoaned the loss of "standards" in American culture for so long that few these days even bother to formulate their complaints as argument. Fortunately, University of Michigan English professor John W. Aldridge still believes in debate, and the result is "Talents and Technicians," a telling indictment of much modern fiction.
Although he praises some talents -- Don DeLillo, T. C. Boyle -- Dr. Aldridge is mainly interested in showing that many of today's respected writers are emperors without clothes whose work exhibits a "thinness of conception and opaqueness of execution" (an example: Raymond Carver) or is nothing more than "a kind of literary tranquilizer" (the Barthelmes, Amy Hempel, Anne Beattie). I suspect history will side with Dr. Aldridge; at one point he argues convincingly, for example, that David Leavitt sidesteps the essential literary task by treating family troubles as if they were endemic to society rather than caused by distinct, individual events or attitudes.
That simple criticism, and all it implies about the fiction writer's need to pass judgment and to give writing a moral center, applies to a huge percentage of novelists working today. To be sure, Dr. Aldridge is a bit of a curmudgeon, but he's right to blame the current dearth of good fiction on a self-referential literary community that discourages risk-taking, promotes technical mastery over literary content, and has generally come to regard writing as more profession than calling. Free-lance journalist Edward Thomas and the small Texas town of Paradise seemed destined to meet. After the oil boom went bust, there wasn't much left of Paradise. After covering wars in every part of the world, the same could be said of Thomas. When he reads an article about the beating of a prominent Paradise citizen and the trail of a local teacher on charges brought by local fundamentalists, Thomas is intrigued. He sells the idea to a national magazine and goes to Paradise to investigate.
Shortly afterward, a tornado hits the town. The wreckage is severe and there are dead. But one victim -- a lawyer investigating local drug dealing -- had been murdered before the twister.
In two previous suspense novels, John Lantigua has shown a knack for stories with fascinating locales and interesting characters. "Twister" will only add to his reputation. The novel captures the atmosphere and flavor of a small town in a long, inexorable decline -- a place that is futilely trying to turn back its cultural and moral clock.