In search of lost crimes
The End of Alice
by A.M. Homes
Scribner's 270 pp. $22
REVIEW BY RODNEY WELCH
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Grand Guignol conclusion may make some readers think of Susanna
Moore's In the Cut
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
Rodney Welch frequently reviews books and films for POINT.