THE CASUAL VACANCY, by J.K. Rowling. Little, Brown, 503 pp., $35.
Full disclosure: I am not a big Harry Potter fan. I was not one of the million people waiting with bated breath for J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, which managed to become both a No. 1 bestseller and a critical disappointment on the day of its publication. Though reviewers have bemoaned the lack of Hogwarts magic in "The Casual Vacancy," there is a connection between it and its wildly popular predecessors -- a financial one. As Rowling put it in an interview with NPR, "Harry Potter set me free to write whatever I want to write."
Rowling, who endured a stretch as a single mother on welfare, wrote her way out of poverty to become one of the richest women in the world (only recently losing her billionaire status because of high taxes). But it's not the interests of the rich that have been her subject for the past five years. "The Casual Vacancy" is about the same thing our current presidential election is about -- the responsibility of the haves to the have-nots.
"Responsibility, you say: What happened to personal responsibility? We've had them through the local school for years: kids who haven't got a single worker in the family; the concept of earning a living is completely foreign to them; generations of non-workers and we're expected to subsidize them."
This is not one of our Republican hopefuls, but Miles Mollison, candidate for the "casual vacancy" that has opened up on the governing board of the English village of Pagford when Barry Fairbrother drops dead of an aneurysm. Fairbrother was the most powerful proponent of Pagford's responsibility to The Fields, a housing project on the outskirts of town, mostly inhabited by clients of the local methadone clinic. As the news of Fairbrother's death ripples through town, each of more than 20 sharply drawn characters is affected differently.
The Mollison camp, led by obese paterfamilias Howard Mollison, is discreetly thrilled. Filling the empty council seat with one of their set will give them the swing vote they need to shut down the clinic. On the other hand, Fairbrother's ally on the council, a female Pakistani physician, is crushed. Not only because of the political impact, but because he was the only person who made her laugh. Barry Fairbrother, it appears, was the kindest and most fun person in Pagford, and losing him is a blow to the many sad sacks he sheltered under his wing.
Krystal Weedon, the daughter of a junkie prostitute from The Fields, already well-established as the school slut, has lost her biggest champion. Fairbrother had organized a rowing team that was the only good thing in her life. Krystal and four other teenage characters drive the plot of "The Casual Vacancy," and they are a complicated, troubled, angry bunch. There is a bully, a self-cutter, an acne victim and a beauty -- and of course the pimply one is hopelessly in love with the radiant one. "And now his brain teemed and throbbed with Gaia. She was both the sexiest girl he had ever seen and the source of another, entirely inexplicable yearning. Certain chord changes, certain beats, made the very core of him shiver, and so did something about Gaia Bawden." There's one similarity to Harry Potter, at least -- Rowling does a great schoolboy crush.
Having learned how to hack into websites in a class at school, the teenagers begin to use the town council's site as a way to declare war on their parents. Writing as "The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother" under the guise of providing information about the council candidates, the kids rip the town apart by hanging out its dirtiest laundry. The reverberations of their actions are serious, and the dangerous teenage combination of naivete and recklessness brings about the disaster at the end of the book.
Because "The Casual Vacancy" contains bad language and bad behavior, there has been much ballyhoo about how it's not for children. Not for young children, no. But with its realistic, intense teenage characters, its obsession with hypocrisy and its progressive ideals, the book is a natural for sophisticated high school readers, and other connoisseurs of dark social satire. I particularly recommend it to the other five people in the world who didn't go nuts for Harry Potter. No quidditch here.