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The End of Alice

LA Times

Moral America

By Elizabeth Houghton

Feeling snug as a bug in a rug? Beware, gentle reader, the soothing aspects of life as we know it are about to be profoundly disturbed. Crack the back of The End of Aliceand a visceral nerve will be laid open, exposed for the quick pen of A.M. Homes to tease out of its mind. With all the cunning and control of a brilliant lover, she takes us to places we dare not to go alone. Once there, we are haunted by our willing participation. There are lines we do not cross, things we do not speak about. We have boundaries, right?

From on high it looks so orderly, a world defined by grids of lush green. Move in and you will meet nice people in tennis whites who get their clocks by the swish of the sprinklers and the jingle of the Good Humor man. Get a little closer and you will hear the silent cry of confusion, a wild thing tamed to perform on command.

"The girl. She is home for the summer, returned to her people after sophomore year at a prominent girls' college, whose name I will keep secret, to spare the institution the embarrassment or perhaps pride, depending on which of the trustees you might ask. And while one can recognize the benefits of a single-sex education, the high pursuits of the few remaining colleges, one rarely discusses the drawbacks, the demand that the body suspend its development, its inclinations, while the intellect is encouraged to grow."

She too is not named, lest she be you or me. (Anonymity plays a powerful role in this book, it keeps us looking over our shoulders, questioning what we think we know.) Her mind has been exercised, her body starved. She is the babysitter, the tennis instructor, but her packaging does not come with a much-needed warning. Her craving for a 12-year-old boy will be hazardous to her health. Her secret can only be safe with someone already under lock and key.

He is a notorious pedophile serving a life sentence in maximum security, a dutiful correspondent to the enraged and depraved, the pen pal of choice for a nihilistic 19-year-old in need of a confidante cum mentor. She makes the first move. He takes the bait. "What drew me to this particular offering, this large flat envelope—1 significant page not folded, the document of such value that it not be tampered with, altered to fit through the thin slot of a mailbox, that its contents are of such import that they need be taken by hand to the postmaster and left in his care for quickest delivery—what interested me about this well-typed tome was the willingness of its author to transcend, to flirt, outside her chosen category or group."

She vamps as a seductress with all the angst and bluster of an only daughter on the verge of coming into her own, whipping through her mother's closet in search of the dress that is going to fit her just right. It is kind of sexy, kind of silly. You can almost see her girlish pride: "One of my reasons for writing—and there are lots!—is to let you have a look at my life: I thought you might be curious to see what someone like me is really like. I'm crazy to learn more about your life and hope you will tell me all about prison. It sounds very exciting. Do you make license plates?"

Then it gets serious. A calm comes over her, she adopts an air of cool that sends shivers down our spines. She gets her boy all right, but then his father gets her, and it's hard, fast and cruel, leaving her numb. The playful spirit she exuded at the start is trashed, a childhood toy left raggedy, its stuffings pummeled. What kind of world do we live in that this can happen? Is it all their fault, the parents? "Do you even have a clue? I doubt you realize it, but your influence is everywhere. And it's not only me, it's all the mothers and all the girls. Everyone is afraid." He, however, is safely behind bars.

At a distance, off-limits, he was so amusing or so she thought. So did Alice, the girl let her letters inspire him to remember the reason he is here: "Alice: naked by the lake is how she found me. She is there on the beach, standing between me and my clothing. I turn away overcome by false modesty. She watches. She wears war paint and carries a bow and a quiver filled with arrows ending in blue suction cups. She giggles. She points to my shriveled self hanging down below.
"She finds me amusing.
"Her amusement I find humiliating, arousing.
"I instantly want to do something—to silence that stupid giggling.
"Alice collapses, beside herself with glee."

You can imagine what eventually happens to Alice. Read the novel and it will be graphically clear. He was 31 then, she was 12. Not a picture for the family album. Reason enough to raise a hand and say, "Excuse me but do we really need to push the edge of this envelope? Is this a book I want in my school library?" Probably not. Getting past the pedophilia was a test. The prison sex scenes can be tough too. It is easy to understand serious objection to the subject matter. But the writing takes flight from such an original departure point you find yourself transported high up above the noise, leaving judgment grounded, baggage for mere mortals to carry.

In this book, the fairer sex always initiates contact. It is a nifty twist on "the girl who cried rape," a window of opportunity for the fog to roll in, graying what should be black and white. He learned at his mother's knee what it is to be taken, guided to give while being told he was doing the getting. He was just a boy when his mother, "the Tomato Queen in Morgan County, in the tiny town of Bath, of Berkley Springs, buried in the Mountain State, West Virginia," is sprung from the asylum and takes her son on a field trip, a victory lap through her hometown. Having shown him off, she takes him to the privacy of the baths, where she forces his hand.

"'It's your home,' she says again. 'You lived there, before you lived anywhere else. You're not afraid of going home, are you?'"

In all of a moment his mind is warped, he makes the equation, fear plus force equal pleasure. "And then with no warning, the teeth of this strange second mouth bite my hand. Her head goes back and she bellows like I have killed her, and I cry out, too, because she's hurting me and I don't know what's happening. I'm scared and I want my hand back and I want my mother back and I want to be out of this place."

He can't get out. His is the voice of someone whose only forum for the conversation has been in his head. Monosyllabic prison life clearly does not lend itself to witty repartee prior to rape or literate exchanges following oral sex, even with the best-educated of partners. "I raise my hips off the bed as he unzips my trousers and pulls them down. He does the same thing with my underwear, everything to the ankles, and then he reaches back and takes my shoes off. They drop to the floor, two heavy clunks; the echo I'm sure is an announcement up and down the hall that I'm being had again. Clayton pulls his T-shirt off, the muscles ripple. His left nipple is pierced and through it he wears his leaf from the Ivy Club, his Princeton dining affiliation. This is a man who can't read, can't be understood, a man who if he were so inclined could kill me in a split second—a feature that undoubtedly adds an unarticulated element of the excitement."

Our narrator knows the value of foreplay. His isolation and imagination conspire to plot a dazzling trajectory toward release. Ours from the hold of his brilliance, his from the memory of his crime. It is a masterful build-up, so biblical in nature as to give us hope for a redemption where there will be none.

"My grandmother squeezes the blood of an orange into a glass and sets it before me, thick with the meat of the fruit, with the seeds I am afraid to drink, to swallow, for fear an orange will grow inside me, reach its branches up from my stomach and into the back of my throat, tickling me.
"'No seeds,' my mother always said. 'Spit the seeds.'
"'Swallow it,' my grandmother says. 'No one wants to see you spitting at the table.'"
The demon seed has been planted. Only time will tell. Like the clock on the prison wall with one hand, only light can distinguish day from night.