MY ABSOLUTE DARLING, by Gabriel Tallent. Riverhead, 417 pp., $27.
About midway through Gabriel Tallent’s explosive debut novel, “My Absolute Darling,” 14-year-old Julia Alveston, aka Turtle, eats dinner at a friend’s house for the first time in her life. She is seated with the nice, normal family of four at a claw-footed mahogany table in a dining room overlooking the beach outside Mendocino, California, and her new friend’s mom is letting the kids try a little wine, despite the dad’s reservations. Turtle may as well have gone to Mars. She “has always known that other people grew up differently than she did. But she had, she thinks, no idea how differently,” writes the 30-year-old author, who is the son of writer Elizabeth Tallent.
Since her mother died when she was small, Turtle’s father, Martin, has gone utterly off the rails. “When she was six, he had her put on a life jacket for cushion, told her not to touch the hot ejected casings, and started her on a bolt-action Ruger .22, sitting at the kitchen table and bracing the gun on a rolled-up towel. Grandpa must’ve heard the shots on his way back from the liquor store because he came in wearing jeans and a terry-cloth bathrobe and leather slippers with little leather tassels, and he stood in the doorway and said, ‘Goddamn it, Marty.’ ”
The main features of Turtle’s upbringing in a rundown, overgrown house on 60 junglelike Northern California acres above the cove where her mother drowned have been: a huge arsenal of guns, intense paranoia and survivalist training, deep involvement with nature and routine verbal and sexual abuse, even torture. While Turtle has been taught by her father to think of herself in the crudest possible terms used to describe women, she is also his “absolute darling.” “Do you know what you mean to me?” he says. “You save my life every morning that you get up and out of bed. I hear your little footsteps padding down your stairwell and I think, that’s my girl, that’s what I’m living for.” Then she breaks raw eggs into her mouth for breakfast and tosses her father a beer.
At school, she struggles. Seeing all the red flags — isolation, watchfulness, misogyny — her teacher tries to intervene, but Martin has trained Turtle to instantly shut down the merest discussion of her situation or face being taken away by the authorities. (He’s right about that, at least.) The only person who has any idea what’s going on is Grandpa, who lives in a cabin on the property, drinking from morning to night, powerless against his son. For lack of will or strength to do anything more, he gives his granddaughter a very sharp knife.
After one particularly horrible night at home, Turtle lights out on a long, unannounced hike and comes upon two nerdy high school boys who have gotten lost in the wilderness. Turtle is hanging back, listening in amazement to their incessant, over-the-top schoolboy banter, which provides some much-needed comic relief. They have this exchange about whether to enter an abandoned cottage:
Brett says, “Dude, dude, what if you go in there — and there’s just, like, one deformed albino child on a rocking chair with a banjo?”
Jacob says, “And he takes us prisoner and makes us read ‘Finnegans Wake’ to his peyote plants?”
Brett says, “You can’t tell anyone that my mom made us do that. You can’t.”
By the time they make it out of the woods, the boys, particularly Jacob, are infatuated with Turtle — “the future shotgun-toting, chain-saw-wielding queen of postapocalyptic America,” as they introduce her to family and friends. Turtle has also fallen in love — which we immediately realize is going to go over very, very poorly at home.
There are an ungodly number of carefully named and described weapons in this book, and you know what they say about a gun on the wall in the first chapter. They say similar things about a cove with dangerous tides, and a psychotic abuser who feels threatened. As much as you know it’s coming, you’ll still be set back a notch by the glorious, terrible pyrotechnics Tallent unleashes in his climax here.
As a reader, I am resistant to novels about abuse — but “My Absolute Darling” thunders past that preference just as Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” did two years ago. These novels achieve something similar to what happens in the best fiction about the Holocaust, seducing us with beautiful language and characters and then setting loose the drama and horror of true human evil. I hated it — and loved every minute.