In search of lost crimes

The End of Alice
by A.M. Homes

Scribner's 270 pp. $22


For anyone who has read Lolita, A.M. Homes' The End of Alice is bound to be greeted with skepticism.

Like the Nabo-kov classic, it is a pedophile's memoir. The narrator, like Humbert Humbert, is a devoted aesthete (he prefers the term "classicist"), graceful stylist, and vampiric possessor. Alice, the pre-teen object of desire from his past, is at least as precocious as the immortal Dolores Haze. Homes even dares to weave a butterfly collection into the plot, as if daring her entomologist predecessor to rise from his grave and say "Hands off."

But where one was a brilliant comedy about the search for lost time, The End of Alice is something else, if not something better. It's Lolita with fangs: an intriguing, mischievous, horrifying dual story that is as much about the murder of innocence as it is the perilous call of the erotic imagination. Call it a variation on a theme by Nabokov; like the best variations, it makes its own music and stakes its own ground its own bloody ground. It is as enticing as it is repulsive. That's its power.

Two stories are at work in the novel, one true and one maybe not. Both are told for the most part by an anonymous pervert, whose fatal encounter 20 years before with the late Alice, 12-year-old seductress and victim, has kept him locked up ever since. His memory of her is rekindled and inflamed by a series of letters from a sophomore at a women's college.

This correspondent is no ordinary girl; she's a fan. She understands his lust for young, ripe children, unsullied by adolescence; she has her own sights set on one 12-year-old Matthew. In her letters, which are narrated back to us in florid detail, she plays the acolyte, dutifully reporting her progress to an acknowledged master.

She starts by offering Matthew tennis lessons, then by getting invited to his house. She is careful to make herself Matthew's special friend, even sealing their bond with a gruesome (and quite nauseating) pre-coital initiation rite. Once Matthew's unsuspecting mom asks the girl to babysit, the fix is in: she's the candy store and he's the kid. While Matthew's baby brother is tied to a dog-leash in the back yard, she and her inductee romp naked under the sprinkler, rough-housing with imbecilic horny fury in their bower of suburban bliss.

The possession of Matthew evokes both the narrator's past his seduction of Alice, his own mother's seduction of his and his own wretched present in the bowels of the prison system, where he is both rapist and raped. He is doped up (with under-the-tongue, between-the-bars injections from a cellmate), turned on and frustrated; the girl is an amateur who doesn't know the true exhilarating danger of forbidden lust.

The dim possibility of parole makes him anxious to put himself in the girl's story, to show this privileged tenderfoot the touch of the master's claws presuming, of course, she's telling the truth. He wonders if she is just as we, as readers, have to wonder where her account ends and his embellishment begins. He toys with these suspicions, suggesting that maybe reader and writer are both under the spell of pure fantasy, of the id-driven pornographic scripts we draft out at a moment's notice.

"All the same, fact or fiction," he says, "her hot air has landed on me like the breath of a bellows, has aroused my flame, made my embers glow."

He even takes cruel delight in catching the reader out, pants down or skirt up, as it were: "I am fully aware of what you've been doing while you've been reading this these are my pages you're staining with your spunky splash." He destroys our vantage point, our comfort of distance; his camera eye stares at the reader as if to announce: "There's more of me inside you than you'd like to admit."

But there are other, more pernicious realities that neither he nor his epistolary co-conspirator want to face, either: how these things end. The girl is abused by Matthew's friends and his father; the pedophile, at a parole hearing, collapses under the burden of recalling the true gory end of Alice.

This mnemonic denouement isn't completely believable; it turns, in part, on Alice's ignorance of menstruation. This is Homes way of saying that even a sexually advanced child is still a child. The aim is true but the episode rings false. This does not keep the climax from being chillingly effective.

The Grand Guignol conclusion may make some readers think of Susanna Moore's In the Cut reportedly, Knopf publishers took too much heat from feminists over Moore's book to accept this one. Small wonder. This is a dark, funny, horrifying, and artfully disturbing book that will rattle the nerves of anyone who reads it.

Rodney Welch frequently reviews books and films for POINT.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 5/9/96