THE CENTRAL character in Mark Kelman's first novel is a thoroughly disgusting person, a haughty 21-year-old woman who serenly ignores the consequences of any of her actions. She is locked in a test of wills with her younger brother Nicky, whose suspicions that she has committed a murder gradually bloom into certainty. The book, on the surface a mystery played out at a Long Island estate, is actually a penetrating examination of engagement, of the need for people to surrender partially to the world in order to live in it.
Lesley is initially an appealing character; proud, self-sufficient, wonderful in her precociousness. In first grade, she calls the teacher a "dumb fuck;" she extends that assessment coolly to all surrounding people and events. She stands slouching remotely from everything, alternately coy or arrogant, ready always with the correct line or manner. There is something arresting about her decisive mastery of otherwise untenable situations.
This view begins to sour under her brother's increasingly critical examination. Lesley has arrived unexpectedly from college, upending previous plans, and then left her Westchester home almost immediately for the Long Island estate of wealthy cousins Phil and Helene. Nicky, his suspicions aroused by a string of untoward happenings, gradually unravels the incredible story: his cute older sister is a killer.
Evidence in tow, an incredulous Nicky confronts Lesley in the book's climax, pitting his doubts against her certitude, his emotions against her coolness, attempting to wring from her a confession of responsibility. But Lesley evades everything, seeing it only as some game, and not even a macabre one at that. The confrontation, as it must be, is a stand-off: Nicky refuses to succumb to his sister's inhumane logic but neither does he press ahead for any definitive verdict against her.
The novel's primary strength is in Kelman's skillful guidance of the gradual emergence of Lesley's character: as the cuteness about her modus operandi evaporates, he forces a re-examination of the sources of her original appeal. Her apparent virtues quite rightly are transformed into vices: her serenity becomes coldness, her determination ruthlessness, her affectionate mannerisms so much hypocritical garbage. Lesley the unblinking curser of teachers almost effortlessly becomes Lesley the murderer.
Nicky, on the other hand, has at least one foot planted in the world. He permits others to enter his life as more than mere objects to be gotten around. When his close friend Bruce is killed in a demonstration on the West Coast, he abjectly mulls over the meaning of death--Lesley fails to attend the funeral. The difference shows in small ways perhaps even more vividly: Nicky goes to a New York library for some detective research and feels bad because a Puerto Rican girl his own age must fetch a book for him. Lesley, behind her armor, would never have noticed.
In what is in one sense his quest for humanity, Nicky is aided by two good examples--his father and his best friend Bruce, neither of whom are very prominent in the book. The father is full of quiet, sensible advice that bespeaks of an inner wisdom. As for Bruce, after his funeral, his unpopular next door neighbor speaks to his mother: He was always real nice to me, talking to me and listening to me when you don't think he had to. You know how a lot of people sort of like him thought I was just some kind of stupid rag. But he was always real interested in my modeling and things. I liked him a real lot for that." But then Bruce dies and Nicky must face Lesley's nonchalance alone. He does not lose in his attempts to force her to admit her humanity, but neither does he win a clear-cut victory.
But the whole book is a bit hard to believe. After all, how many murderesses are there in the northern suburbs of New York City? This overdrawing of Lesley's character is hard to manage at times, but Kelman's skill with dialogue and character development never makes it too unwieldy. Of course Lesley is extreme, but you never lose the sense that her acts are a perfectly logical extension of her basic flaws. There are in the New York suburbs, and, of course, in other places, people, other Lesleys, who live at the edges of life, eschewing interaction for a crackpot, detached wisdom that never really weeps.
Aside from never losing control of an explosive situation, this novel is remarkable for another reason--it successfully manages a literary style that can easily backfire. Kelman tells the story through Nicky's diary: his principal device is the explanatory aphorism drawn from an observation, which, if not handled well, can sound like a annoyingly modern version of Aesop's Fables. Kelman, however, is always in control of this mode of expression; his pithyisms rarely miss with flashes of insight about the way people act and think and structure the world. Nicky, reflecting after Bruce's death, for example, remarks. "We must recognize ourselves as subordinate to the movement of history, not in the sense that history is some moral being but because history is simply a whole lot of Bruces." How better to describe the terribly disarming simplicity of the need for people to live in the world.
And in this sense of the simple, Kelman at times is reminiscent of Saul Bellow. Like Bellow, his characters speak in complexities; also like Bellow, the best of them penetrate to the simple yet hard truths. At one point in Herzog, Moses Herzog, who traffics in complexities, recalls how his two older brothers pleaded with him not to cry at his father's funeral. And yet Herzog rejects these Reality Instructors, these practitioners of cool detachment, and sobs away unashamed, unabashedly uncertain of his role in a frightful world yet willing to come to some sort of terms with it.
Lesley opts to stand aloof, strong and uninvolved, thus losing any chance for authenticity. As Nicky explains to her at the end, "The meek may not inherit the earth but they'll certainly be the first to understand it." To live in the world may mean an obeisance before pain and confusion, but it is the only route to knowledge. A simple, even obvious truth, perhaps, but as this remarkable novel suggests, one which is often unrecognized.