Authors and After Words

Hannah Tinti’s first novel, The Good Thief (2008), was well received indeed. It won the American Library Association’s “Alex” award and the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. What interests me is the nearly obligatory reference that surfaced in almost every review of the book.

Here, for instance, is the review from written by one Megan Ward:  “Ren [the 12-year-old hero is] an Oliver Twist at heart, which keeps the reader rooting for him even as he gets mixed up with a Dickensian cast of characters – a remorseless hit man, a belligerent dwarf, a mad doctor and a pair of unlucky twins.” The head line for this review reads:  “Hannah Tinti’s Good Thief:  twist on Dickens.”

From a New York Times Book Review (September 28, 2008) Maile Meloy wrote:  “The plot is Dickensian, and so are some of the names…”

From the August 2008 column, “Books of the Times,” Jane Maslin writes:  “…in The Good Thief, the reader can find plain-spoken fiction full of traditional virtues:  strong plotting, pure lucidity, visceral momentum and a total absence of writerly mannerisms. In Ms Tinti’s case that means an American Dickensian tale with touches of Harry Potterish whimsy along with a macabre streak of spooky New England history.”

In the Washington Post on Sunday, August 31, 2008, in a review by Ron Charles, one reads:  “Set in the dark woods of 19th century New England, The Good Thief follows a bright, one-handed orphan through enough harrowing scrapes and turns to satisfy your inner Dickens.” Later he writes:  “Ren’s plight is creaky with sentimentality, but Tinti knows how to keep her balance as she steps through these hoary conventions of Victorian melodrama. By the time she finishes describing Ren’s little collection of stolen objects and his muted despair, I wanted to sign the adoption papers myself.” (Emphasis mine.)

As I read The Good Thief, it not only captured more than a wisp of Dickens but recalled as well the chilling allure of the great Gothic horror novels, books like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – which Ms. Tinti refers to in an amusing way – and any of the great works of Edgar Allen Poe. I agree that on the surface, it’s a pretty good read, with thrills and chills galore, but then, the more I think of it, the redemption, such as it is, comes too late, too easily, and costs too much. As Melissa Allison writes in her review for the Seattle Times, “The Good Thief probably is not a book that will change people’s lives, but it is a delightful coming-of-age tale with poignant life lessons that make Ren wiser.” I think, on first read, I liked the book more than Ms. Allison, but towards the end, the Gothic elements do overpower the narrative with their violence, brutality, and cruelty. It must be said:  The Good Thief is more than a little violent. It is over the top! So much so that Tinti’s style has become the substance of her book, embedded as it is in the prime image of the book – the severed stump of the boy’s left wrist! Are we really to believe that her 12-year-old hero, Ren, can recover easily from the relentless and ascending trauma of his young life? Such experiences cannot simply be written through and away. At least in some measure, Tinti’s bittersweet ending reflects the persistently brutal loss that continues to permeate this brave boy’s life.

What are we to make of the fact that the success of The Good Thief is based largely on its stylistic accomplishment? Have we come to a point at which style has become a matter of imitation, much to the determent of substance? To be sure, Dickens was a virtuoso stylist. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” But just as surely, Dickens was a social crusader who, in his best moments and especially where children were concerned, shaped his efforts to bring his readers to a point of concern which would cause them to move towards the betterment of society. In this, he wrote directly out of his own experience when at the age of 12 or so, he became the sole support of his family while working in a factory pasting labels on jars of boot polish – shades of Oliver Twist! And Dickens did use elements of Gothic horror to dramatize situations of child abuse but it is a mistake to think that his style was ever a matter of decoration, of mere entertainment. No, Dickens’ powers were always put to the service of his advocacy and always for the betterment of those who needed attention in a brutal and unforgiving world.

Now, however, with clever writers like Tinti, we see these elements of style mimicked to no greater end than the titillation and entertainment of the reading audience. There is not one word, one sentence, one idea that would cause a reader to cast his or her thoughts beyond the covers of this book to consider the fate of actual children. To most of her critics, this is a matter to be praised. Fiction for the sake of fiction, as it were. Yet the very conditions that shaped Dickens concerns for children still exist – child labor, devastating poverty and in virtually every city in the developed and developing world, throw away children who must struggle in the gutters to survive. Ms Allison is right – this is not a book that will change lives – especially the lives of children.

There is a huge segment of the publishing industry that is concerned solely with style, with titillation, and with the profits generated from such writing. We will continue to look at these issues from time to time. For now, let me leave off with the hope that those writers like Tinti, who imitate so cleverly the styles of their forebears without pursuing the substance of those styles, will take another look at the world in which we live. Dickens wrote to make people aware of the rampant child abuse in his own industrialized world. The global economy is no less lethal to the children of the 21st century and the brutalized children in our world today are legion. There is no doubt that Hannah Tinti shows great stylistic promise in the way she is able to recall graphically the conditions of an earlier age for the sake of contemporary entertainment. It remains to be seen if that promise will be applied to the conditions of her own time and whether or not she, like Dickens, will use her talent to serve any social or spiritual redemption that would move her art beyond mere entertainment.