Unfortunately Unassuming

Barbara Kingsolver makes a misstep as she tries to make her point in 'The Lacuna'

A central symbol of this ambitious new novel by Barbara Kingsolver is the howler monkey. Denizen of the treetop canopy in Mexico and Central America, a howler is hard to see, but impossible to miss. Once a howler has trumpeted his message to the world, other howlers pile on to outdo him.

Just—according to Kingsolver's central character—like the press, the "talkers," not the "thinkers."

The Lacuna takes place between the 1930s and the 1950s, in Mexico and the Southern United States. It opens with young Harrison William Shepherd hearing the howlers at dawn on a Mexican island. Shepherd will eventually grow up to be a famous American novelist, but at the beginning of the book, he's a neglected half-white kid stuck off Veracruz with his Mexican mother and her current married boyfriend, and he thinks the howlers are demons out to gobble his flesh.

The child hangs out at the beach, discovers the beauty of the undersea world, and learns about social dynamics: Even though it feels as if you're swimming with the fishes, when the shark arrives, you're on your own. He also discovers an amazing underwater cave that's actually a passageway out to the sea ... a lacuna. As a mysterious space, a dangerous opening, a historical missing piece, "lacuna" proves serviceable to Kingsolver in a novel about telling truth in a roiling political climate.

Later, Shepherd will find himself in Mexico City with painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and revolutionary Lev Trotsky—which will put him in roiling political company.

This is Barbara Kingsolver's seventh work of fiction, and her 12th book, including nonfiction, essays and poetry. The one-time Tucson resident is always concerned with political, social and environment issues, and in The Lacuna, she takes on the "talkers"—the press, and art and literary critics—and the relationship of the artist to truth, politics and society.

Shepherd's story is told through his personal journals, compiled by his former secretary who calls herself "The Archivist." He begins writing during his nomadic childhood. (His ambitious mother is always on the lookout for the next meal ticket.) The narrative line comprises Shepherd's journals, letters, news reports, reviews and fan mail, and the Archivist's commentary.

Shepherd stumbles accidentally into the Kahlo-Rivera realm. Essentially a street kid in Mexico City, he's heard about a new mural being painted and catches Rivera just when he needs a new plaster-mixer. Shepherd hasn't mixed plaster before, but he's mixed pastry dough, and his pastry prowess lands him first a plastering job, then a cooking job. Later, his typing and language skills secure him a secretarial post, and he's there when Trotsky appears.

When historical exigencies press in 1940, Shepherd flees to the United States. He's unqualified to serve in the military (breaking World War II's version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"), so he settles quietly in North Carolina. There, he finishes the novel he'd been working on in Mexico, and it's an immediate popular hit. By novel no. 2, he's well into the literary limelight. The possibility of a movie contact, however, along with his Mexico connections, gets Shepherd caught up in the anti-communist craziness.

Kingsolver has created a reserved, unassuming character in Harrison Shepherd. He's so unassuming, in fact, that he becomes a cipher. Kingsolver's trademark nuanced characterization is not well-served by this collaged point of view.

Although Shepherd is doing with his life what he aspired to do—to write—the journals don't show him deriving much joy from it. His privacy is threatened, and he hides out at home. The press, Shepherd learns, lies. Editors pander to the public. Reviewers envy. Fans write him presumptuous drivel. It's a burden being a celebrity for art, he discovers, being "employed by the American imagination," a situation he satirizes in his "Universal Declaration of the Rights of Howlers." In essence, the "Declaration" proclaims that the public has the "god-given right" to gleefully, rudely, stupidly, loudly and mendaciously cut down artists and toss 'em into the fire.

Kingsolver expresses clear concern about the treatment of artists and the respect accorded them and their truths in The Lacuna. I wish I could say we get to know Shepherd well enough to sympathize with him and agree with her. However, while the cipher in Frida Kahlo's kitchen and Richard Nixon's House of Representatives is intriguing, the cipher in the extended whine is not.

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