David Flusfeder is a deliciously talented writer. His fifth novel, The Pagan House, revolves around a precocious 12-year-old who calls himself Edgar. He was christened Edward, but he loathes its variants and diminutives (Ed, Eddie, Steady Eddie, The Edster), so he decides to take a more "graceful" name instead. Edgar lives with his mother, Monica, and her boyfriend Jeffrey, an irritating academic who wears black polo-neck jumpers and heavy black-rimmed glasses, and always greets Edgar with an ironic "Geeeezaah!".
The novel opens with Edgar and his mother preparing to travel to America to stay with his grandmother Fay in a small town in upstate New York for a couple of days, before Edgar embarks on a bonding road trip with his absent father. Edgar is excited by this, but not as much as he is by his "rebellious groin": he spends much of his time obsessively masturbating. He is at an age when anything and everything functions as a provocative turn-on. On the flight to America, the touch on his arm of the back of the air hostess's skirt when she bends down to ask a burly man across the aisle whether he'd prefer chicken or beef ranks as "number four in the most erotic moments of Edgar's life". Eventually, Edgar and Monica arrive at Fay's beautiful old house, the setting for the rest of the action, where they are wrong-footed by the presence of a polite Irishman called Warren, who seems to be Fay's live-in housekeeper. "Who is Warren?" Monica asks, but Fay doesn't give her a straight answer.
Edgar's father lets down his son by delaying his arrival and then, when he finally shows up, forgetting his 13th birthday. Left to his own devices, Edgar discovers more about the singular history of his grandmother's house, which was once occupied by a 19th-century Christian sect that included his ancestors, George and Mary Pagan. Flusfeder interweaves the narrative with chapters that dramatise George and Mary becoming hypnotised by a charismatic preacher called John Prindle Stone, who wants to abolish marriage in favour of free love. The diction of these passages is deliberately archaic, lending the novel stylistic variety.
The Pagan House is terrific fun, not least because Edgar is such a vibrant creation. Early on, he imagines a "foppish" version of himself with a "butterfly mind" - which is a perfect description of the constantly shifting invention that whooshes through his head. In part, this motors the plot: when Fay's tom cat disappears, Edgar suspects Warren, prompting a semi-tongue-in-cheek thriller in which the adolescent hero adopts the role of detective (even though he is "the very antithesis of the generic private eye. He was neither hard-bitten nor hard-boiled"). But his quicksilver mind is also a joy in itself. Flusfeder is clearly intoxicated by the fertility of his imagination and cannot resist describing every whim of Edgar's nimble play-acting.
At one point, for instance, Edgar suddenly worries that caviar contains semen and starts frantically fantasising that, somewhere in the world, boys are kidnapped and "condemned to a life of senseless erotic drudgery, milked like cows by Ukrainian women in dairy aprons and hats, or connected, in long, dehumanised rows, to machines by rubber hoses and electricity leads wired into the most sensitive places of penis and brain. Ruuugghghg."
It's a surreal passage - not at all important in the fabric of the book, but typical of the way in which Flusfeder stitches together words and phrases, overloading on detail, to create the impression of Edgar's breathless, sex-obsessed monologue, right up to that onomatopoeic shudder at the end. Later, when the coming-of-age storyline has run its course and Edgar is much surer of himself, Flusfeder becomes bogged down. There is too much emphasis on the resolution of the thriller part of the narrative, centring on the intrigue shadowing Warren and the promised climax of the town's age-old, pagan-sounding Blackberry Festival. Everything becomes slightly sinister and Wicker Man-ish. But this doesn't detract from the strength of the earlier sections, which present a picture of hormone-rampant adolescence that's up there with Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers and Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth.
Alastair Sooke writes for the Daily Telegraph