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Powells.com
Saturday, August 30th, 2003


 

Fierce People

by Dirk Wittenborn

A review by Georgie Lewis

The title of Dirk Wittenborn's novel, Fierce People, comes from the anthropological studies of the Yanomamo people, an Amazonian tribe made famous by Napoleon Chagnon who characterized them as extremely violent. (In October 2000 the anthropological world was rocked by controversial charges by Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado against Chagnon for unscrupulous practices.)

The narrator of Fierce People, Finn Earl, is the son of a fictional famous anthropologist who works alongside Chagnon with the Yanomamo. Finn has never met his father and has only recently been in contact with him. He is hoping to meet him in the Amazon next month, July1978. At fifteen, Finn is stoically (and sometimes a tad bitchily) putting up with his massage therapist mother's eccentric lifestyle and the far too thin walls of their New York loft. Finn doesn't mind his mother sleeping around, but he would really appreciate her getting a handle on her cocaine habit. Unfortunately, her desperation for a speedball leads to a series of consequences, including Finn's arrest for buying cocaine and not joining his father in the Amazon, his grandparents' attempt to have his mother committed, and their escape to a very, very rich, exclusive New Jersey town of Vlyvalle.

Employed by the magnate of this small community to massage his cancer-riddled body, Finn's mother Liz is thrilled by their change in circumstance. She replaces her cocaine habit with an addiction to social climbing, an activity which makes her and her son equally as vulnerable as any drug had. The longer they stay, the deeper they become entrenched in the complications and violence of this privileged community.

Themes of class, sex, money, and the corruption borne of affluence entwine in a Gatsby-esque tale of disillusionment and the self-made man. With a late seventies backdrop, in a community setting similar to the one in which the author spent his youth, the reader is struck both by awe and the familiarity one feels when embarking on a tale with a reliable narrator. The Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis blurbs on the cover are appropriate given Wittenborn's similarities to these writers who documented the lives of the precocious and wasted juvenile-rich (McInerney even titled one of his books The Last of the Savages).

The literary "brat pack" similarities don't stop here. Like Donna Tartt's Secret History, Fierce People is propelled by violence, perversion, sex, and mystery. And, like Tartt's characters, many of Wittenborn's are protected or made vulnerable by their relationship to wealth and class (though they are not cursed with that cloying narcissistic brattiness nor pretentious vocabularies that the Tartt gang had in spades). Friendship, first love, and familial ties are explored with sensitivity and tact, and the relationship between Finn and his mother, who is only eighteen years his senior, is especially well-drawn.

There is plenty to enjoy about this book. Finn's character, with his perpetual teenage horniness, and its accompanying unease, is actually terribly endearing. With basic impulses not quite as extreme as Alexander Portnoy or Charles Highway, Finn Earl's mind can still be grubby, but without the self-loathing these two exhibit. There is wit as well as warmth, and the lack of true venom (while there are some vile characters, we don't spend too much time with them) makes this more than a satire on the class system in America; Wittenborn's novel resonates with the reader because of the tender portrayal of Finn.


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