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Rattlesnake Farming.

Zoe Carver, around whom the many plots and concerns of Rattlesnake Farming coil, has not spoken in ten years - not since high school when her boyfriend insisted he had murdered his father and was institutionalized as insane, her grandmother died under circumstances for which Zoe feels responsible, weeks of posing nude for the neighborhood pervert climaxed in unrequited lust and sudden shame, and she caught her best friend attempting to seduce her (Zoe's) father, who years ago married a woman he did not love and who did not love him in a contest to see who might suffer the more. As the novel opens, Zoe has come to Cascabel Flats in the southwest to visit her Garden-of-Eden-obsessed brother, who farms rattlesnakes from which he hopes to extract an antivenin that will raise human consciousness and reverse the Fall.

For most of the novel, every third chapter advances the Cascabel Flats story. These chapters alone would satisfy many novelists as a book in themselves as Zoe encounters the incarnation of Satan in the person (if that's the right word) of Stewart Beauregard - who wishes perhaps to kill her, perhaps to father a child upon her - and finds her gift for seeing into the past and conversing with the dead reactivated. (Indeed, "conversing" is not the whole story: visiting her grandmother, Zoe once made love with her great-uncle, who drowned when a teenager.) The other chapters, comprising two-thirds of the novel, alternate between the story of Zoe's mother and maternal grandparents - a grandfather who believed that his wife was his sister, a grandmother who raised not only Zoe's mother but four ghost children - and the story of Zoe's childhood and adolescence, which culminates in the events sketched above.

Rattlesnake Farming is a remarkable accomplishment (and not at all the Vonnegut novel the preceding summary might suggest), a novel of damnation and redemption, sin and guilt, revenge and forgiveness, a mystery-riddled account of people some sort of God is trying to get His hands on. A theodicy, perhaps an anti-theodicy, Kramer's novel is likewise an exploration of the pain of the past, of our human fathers as metonymies of the Father, of fatal attractions and perversity - perversity that seeks to do wrong on the assumption "that the only way to arouse the Lord's interest is to sin further." Convinced that everything signifies, Kramer's characters are haunted by suspicions - that in all the "bad news" comprising life the crucial information has been withheld, that the leap of faith is akin to the strike of a snake.

In short, Rattlesnake Farming is a major novel-profound, funny, terrifying, baffling. Its three major plots are told in distinctive styles - I admired especially the Melvillian voice of the grandparent chapters - yet they blend harmoniously and purposefully. In a book that shows vast ambition and which dives deeper into the wreck of religion than any contemporary novel I can recall, the only fault I can find is that, after working for eight years, Kramer seems to run out of energy about two pages from the end. But I am ready to stand corrected on this point: one should not pretend to understand too quickly a work of such complexity.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Horvath, Brooke
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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