Donna Tartt's "The Secret History." Ivy Books; New York. 1992.

Tartt's book walks skillfully along the familiar paths of drugs, privilege, and murder: making effective use of narration and characterization to keep the tale compelling as it carries on. While not universally convincing - certain deviations from the plausible are less forgivable than others - it is a book well suited to summer afternoons and short reading periods spent waiting for buses, much more than the long chapters would suggest. In such circumstances, the parenthetical observations of the protagonist seem curiously appropriate.

Of Tartt's six main characters, four (Richard, Henry, Camilla, Bunny) manage to be distinctive and interesting. Charles and Francis do rise a bit as the book ends, trying vainly to break the surface that the other four essentially started out atop. The story of the mutual progression of the six: from brilliant and intellectual to sullied and perpetually drunk, is a familiar enough one. The naive narrator thrust into the company of such people is, of course, reminiscent of The Great Gatsby and The Line of Beauty, as is the use of language and idiom in the descriptive segments. When Richard, the narrator and protagonist, calls himself "so essentially... a bystander," he is embedding himself firmly in the camp of those who observe the lives of the more dramatic and interesting. Since every book forces us to be the narrator, this forces us to see the rest of the cast through naive eyes, tinged with admiration and mildest envy.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the book was the effectiveness of the verisimilitude. Discussions of the peculiarities of Greek grammar or of mythology and philosophy did not seem clumsily inserted, but rather seem like an inescapable and essential complement to the plot. The way some of these illuminating little bits are delivered - through the sometimes confusing parenthetical asides that, in places, confuse the narrative - is unique, though bordering on annoying in places. The unashamed use of phrases in other languages and the snippets of lessons and discussions induct the reader into the same strange and exclusive little conclave that the six principle characters inhabit - an intimate position from which to view their actions. Perhaps that, as in Lolita, helps to prevent the formation of harsh condemnations of their abuses in the mind of the reader.

To pass some concluding judgment, The Secret History has all the trappings of an intelligent and perceptive piece of fiction, without an excess of pretense or anything obviously lacking. It presents a beguiling fiction to get a bit lost in for a few days and leaves you feeling as though you have learned a few things and been slightly enriched.