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First Look at J.K. Rowling's New Book 'The Casual Vacancy'
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J .K. Rowling has gone from Potter to potty-mouth.
In her first adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” which the Daily News obtained ahead of Thursday’s release, she has a whole new vocabulary at her disposal.
She shows herself proficient at tossing out the F-word, and a long passage is devoted to an exploration of online porn by two teenage boys who get an eyeful. And its more than just magic wands and white owls — what the teens see is described in extremely graphic terms. Most of the language she uses to describe the naughty surfing is so dirty that we can’t repeat it in a family newspaper.
Rowling has said the worst anyone might say about “The Casual Vacancy,” is that it is “dreadful” — and that she “should have stuck to writing for kids.” Well, here goes . . . Sorry, J.K.
“The Casual Vacancy,” which one bookseller breathlessly predicted would be the biggest novel of the year, isn’t dreadful. It’s just dull.
The U.S. first printing will be 2 million — mega-numbers for most novelists, but merely respectable for Rowling. The “Harry Potter” series has sold 450 million print-copies worldwide. In 2007, the final installment, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” moved 1 million copies a day in the first 10 days. Still, the anticipation for Rowling’s big book for grownups is high. A major marketing campaign is planned and Rowling, who remained mostly silent around the publication of each Potter title, has given a few select interviews.
The title refers to an opening on an English parish council, while the story is concerned with a movement within tiny Pagford to divorce the town from a nearby, low-rent housing project — all of which has the ready appeal of reading minutes from a planning board.
But there’s been a titillation factor, too, as Rowling, who guarded the students’ chastity at Hogwarts, finally gets to write dirty. Besides the porn surfing, there is also a tragic rape, an indication of how determined Rowling is to handle the tough stuff these days. Pagford is an idyllic small town with a “sickle moon” of 1930s bungalows and a cobbled main square. Unfortunately, it was unable to completely divorce itself from contemporary reality. A neighboring city managed to park its poor in a housing estate, the Fields, close enough to Pagford that its children are legally entitled to attend the town’s school.
Barry Fairbrother — note the name — a social crusader and member of the governing parish council drops dead in a parking lot. As the news spreads, “The Casual Vacancy” seems headed in the direction of a comedy of manners, as the locals all but trip over each other to be the first with the news.
It turns out that the ambition Rowling has been hiding from readers throughout the Potter years was her desire to plunge into social realism. Her vehicle is 16-year-old Krystal Weedon who lives in the Fields with her mom, a heroin addict, and her 4-year-old brother.
Weedon was something of a protégé of Fairbrother’s and though she is incessantly foul-mouthed, he had arranged for a local reporter to interview her. He hoped her story could counter a move by the parish council to foist responsibility for the Fields back onto the neighboring city — to which the right-wing members believed it always belonged.
Fairbrother, and other progressive citizens of Pagford, believe they have a duty to help residents of the Fields. Those who don’t agree seize on Fairbrother’s death as an opportunity to load the council with a member who will vote their way.
So it is we are introduced to the town citizens, such as the headmaster, a failed, foolish man married to a smart woman who’s losing patience with him. Their son Fats, a cruel boy who exploits Krystal’s sexual willingness. And the owner of the town delicatessen, and leader of the anti-Fields movement, who is both conniving and self-satisfied.
That’s but a sampling of the folk along the fault line in Pagford, and they are all deluded in their own way with their own tales to tell. The problem is, not one of them is interesting or even particularly likeable. Collectively, it’s all too easy to turn the page on them.
It’s the teenagers then who bear the burden of making us care. And while Rowling more successfully builds drama on this front, the problem is she hasn’t much new to add to the annals of adolescent strife. Ditto on drug-infested poverty. We’ve read it before, darker, bleaker and better.
Rowling’s strength was never her prose. It was her ability to create unforgettable characters and weave stories that held us captive. The magic simply isn’t there in “The Casual Vacancy.”
Indeed, the spell has been broken.