ANITA DIAMANT reading with Melania G. Mazzucco and Francine Prose Sunday (October 23), noon, at the Lakeside Terrace.
THE LAST DAYS OF DOGTOWN by Anita Diamant (Scribner), 264 pages, $34.50 cloth. Rating: NN
Anita Diamant is a woman obsessed with helping ghosts speak.
In The Red Tent, she drew on the biblical figures of Rebecca, Leah and their female peers to bring a forgotten culture of phenomenal women to dazzling life. Follow-up Good Harbor, a story about female intimacy, described how contemporary women confront disease.
In The Last Days Of Dogtown (no, it's not about skateboarding in the 70s), Diamant resurrects the whores, witches and wild dogs who populated Dogtown, a decrepit backwoods community in rural Massachusetts, at the beginning of the 19th century.
The setting and characters should yield gold. In this famine-plagued, horribly impoverished hamlet, we meet mother hen Easter Carter, the mysterious Black Ruth, who prefers to pass as a man, abused orphan Oliver Younger and freed slave Cornelius Finson, whose interracial relationship with Judy Rhines creates tension that Diamant weakly sets up as the novel's through-line.
Dogtown is home to at least a dozen more fairly significant denizens, which is the chief problem here. Rather than following one narrative, the author ricochets between different perspectives in this tale of a disappearing society. That means the characters remain static, two-dimensional archetypes. Why does Ruth wear men's clothing? Why does Easter Carter have no family of her own? Judy Rhines, purportedly the "centre of it all," has a flaccid plot worthy of a second-rate soap opera.
Diamant's confusing structure doesn't help. Throwaway sentences that tell you how much characters have aged are the only clues to chronology.
To her credit, Diamant does subtly illustrate the insidious effects of racism and poverty on a struggling community. But with such poorly fleshed-out characters and an even sketchier structure, it's hard to care about what even the most sympathetic ghost has to say.