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BOOK REVIEW

A hellish Friend

A Good and Happy Child A Novel; Justin Evans; Three Rivers Press: 324 pp., $13.95 paper

August 03, 2008|Nick Owchar | Nick Owchar is deputy book editor of The Times.

IT BEGINS with a figure floating outside a young boy's window, calling his name. The boy, George Davies, refers to this figure as the Friend, someone a lonely kid needs when his father is dead, his mother is struggling to support them and his peers treat him as an outcast. To the psychologists in Justin Evans' debut novel, "A Good and Happy Child," the Friend is a form of wish fulfillment, a "command auditory hallucination," but for George, he's just "a scruffy Huck Finn, an ally" who visits him in sleep and takes him flying through space. And yet, when George begins to behave in increasingly strange and violent ways, an old friend of his father's, Tom Harris, identifies a source far more eerie than mere dysfunction or juvenile yearning: There's a demon involved, one that has an enduring grudge.

It's hard to believe that "A Good and Happy Child" is a first novel -- it's so well-plotted and fresh. An East Coast executive, Evans capably handles several narrative threads at once: young George's diabolical encounters, the collapse of the adult George's marriage and the story of what happened to George's father, Paul. An outsider in academia, a professor whose books on the nature of evil made him the target of much mockery, Paul encountered chilling entities during exorcisms and, after his death, they seek the ruin of his family. When George is in bed at night, the Friend is there, whispering lies in his ear and poisoning him against his mother's efforts to love again. So sweet, so plaintive, the Friend's voice seemingly offers help and the boy trusts it. Then Harris and a group of homegrown exorcists intervene. "Demons aren't termites, George," Harris says. "You don't chase them to their holes and try to stamp them out. . . . No one can do such a thing and expect to walk away, free of consequences!"

"A Good and Happy Child" is so well done that part of me wishes I had missed it: I like to sleep soundly at night. Now, I find myself checking the doors and windows more often than I used to and listening to make sure it's really the cat I'm hearing in the hall. Evans blends lore and vivid anecdotes from demonology -- at one point, we learn about "Pliny's belief that the 'upper airs' were thronged with demons who pluck people's prayers as they rise to heaven" -- and avoids cartoonish horror. Instead, he relies on that most frightening of things: the reader's imagination. By tapping into our own fears, "A Good and Happy Child" leaves us buzzing with dread long after we have put it down.

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nick.owchar@latimes.com

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