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Rowling’s life after Harry: Domestic disturbances

  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, at 9:14 a.m.

“The Casual Vacancy “ by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown; 503 pages; $35)

She’s a billionaire author, having sold more than 450 million copies worldwide of her “Harry Potter” series. Yet it’s hard to envy the harsh scrutiny faced by J.K. Rowling in publishing “The Casual Vacancy,” her first novel for adults. Expectations are exceedingly high.

First things first: Is it any good? That depends. If you like your fiction “literary” — say, with meticulously crafted sentences and a certain degree of subtlety — then you are likely to be disappointed. If, however, you like your fiction plot-driven, dark, with a surfeit of melodrama, this novel is for you.

In other words, “The Casual Vacancy” is no masterpiece, but it is a good escape. Even in the absence of a certain boy wizard, the novel succeeds as a so-called page-turner. Although Rowling has never been celebrated as a language-obsessed stylist, she’s a gifted storyteller who knows how to move along her plot (and several subplots) at a brisk, efficient pace.

This novel is an epic soap opera: It’s stuffed with revenge, sex, duplicity, violence, malignant gossip, drug addiction, self-mutilation, snobbery, cruelty, poverty and death. (If this sounds like an exhausting litany of woes, well, it is.) “The Casual Vacancy” might be described as a black comedy or a comic tragedy, but either way, it’s awfully grim.

In Pagford, a lovely fictional English village where “the most expensive houses stood in all their Victorian extravagance and solidity,” a married, middle-aged father of four, Barry Fairbrother, drops dead of an aneurysm in a golf club parking lot. His death sets off a frenzy of scheming and leads to some rather disturbing events as well.

As a member of the Pagford Parish Council, Barry was an earnest do-gooder instrumental in bringing to town a drug rehab clinic and a low-income housing development called the Fields. Both measures were highly controversial, pitting rich against poor and raising concerns about crime and entitlement. Now that Barry’s death leaves a “casual vacancy” — an open seat on the council — there is an opportunity to undo his work. To the conniving types (and there are many) who hope to replace him, the vacancy is seen “not as an empty space but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities.”

Some neighbors feign pity for Barry’s widow, Mary, while in private they celebrate Barry’s sudden demise and begin plotting their political agendas. Meanwhile, as many of the adults in Pagford engage in increasingly repellent behavior, the adolescents are mired in dramas of their own.

Andrew Price despises his brute tyrant of a father, Simon, while lusting after a new classmate named Gaia. Sukhvinder Jawanda, an overweight Pakistani girl, endures alienation, bullying and much worse. Stuart Wall, an unrepentant troublemaker, pursues Krystal Weedon, the damaged, foul-mouthed daughter of Terri, a heroin addict and prostitute.

The notorious Weedons live in the Fields, and their squalid existence stirs anger, condescension and disgust among their genteel neighbors. Although Krystal, her 3-year-old brother, Robbie, and their mother are terribly marginalized, fate will cause them to affect the community in ways that prove profound and tragic.

As Rowling’s narrative shifts among various families and characters, she exposes the misery that exists behind their finely painted front doors. It’s no surprise that her adolescents are conveyed with more depth than the adults, who tend toward the one-dimensional. The vile, greedy Howard Mollison, for instance, is described as “an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four.”

“The Casual Vacancy” suffers too from an excess of overwrought prose (“She turned a face of fury upon him”), yet there are flashes of brilliant observation and description. “Samantha sometimes found Miles absurd and, increasingly, dull,” Rowling writes. “Every now and then, though, she enjoyed his pomposity in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat.”

Of course, the novel’s themes of poverty, elitism, dependency and responsibility are timely. Class tensions seem more divisive than ever. And Rowling can’t be faulted for serving up so many unlikable characters. The problem is that these people are (by and large) not very interesting. They are oafs and buffoons and snobs — and they are caricatures. Rowling punishes them for their sins, but she offers little insight into what drives them to manipulation and despair.

Some readers may feel put off by a story that is so relentlessly bleak, and one that offers such vicious character portraits. Yet it’s impressive that Rowling would tackle an array of deeply challenging issues. She is explicit and unapologetic about her politics, and she stands on the right side of social justice. Had “The Casual Vacancy” not built to a shrill, melodramatic climax, it would have been a more powerful work of fiction.

This novel is effective in showing how the lives of these residents quickly unravel, and how the insipid small-mindedness of a small town can have toxic and wide-reaching consequences. But as Rowling piles on the trauma and shame to an implausible extent, it becomes almost tabloid-like and absurd. (Less, as they say, is more.)

Ultimately, the author’s agenda — though admirable — overshadows the story itself. That doesn’t mean “The Casual Vacancy” isn’t worth reading. It’s fascinating to observe Rowling exploring new terrain, however messily. Let’s see what she does next.

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