Nobody, it seems, says no to J.K. Rowling. After selling some 450 million copies of her justly beloved Harry Potter books, publishing’s biggest superstar could write a Proust-size ode to her toenails and eager editors would line up to publish it. She wrote a 500-page novel for grown-ups? Great! It’s got teen sex and explicit descriptions of shooting heroin and characters who say things to each other like “you useless f—in’ smackhead cow”? Uh, okay. It’s about a bunch of disagreeable buffoons bickering over a minor local-government job in Nowhere, England? Huh. If you say so…
The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s overlong but often entertaining debut adult novel, is a big book that follows small people jockeying for a little position in the tiny town of Pagford. When one of the community’s 16 parish councilors unexpectedly dies of an aneurysm, a bunch of town notables try to use the ensuing “casual vacancy” to pursue various conflicting agendas. Rowling does a nice job laying out her 20-plus characters’ endless pretensions and weaknesses, which she punctures with gleeful flicks of a surprisingly sharp comic blade.
But mixed in with this cutting comedy is a more serious book that tackles uncomfortable questions of class, poverty, and politics, and it’s here that The Casual Vacancy falters. Some of Pagford’s less liberal residents would like to fob off an unsavory housing project on neighboring Yarvil and evict an addiction clinic from a town-owned building, and whoever fills the open seat could influence the parish council’s decisions about both. Rowling offers a convincing portrayal of underclass misery, but while she clearly wants her social commentary to resonate beyond the Pagford town border, she gets lost in the intricacies of a who-cares local election that boils down to a contest between equally disagreeable candidates. “So will voters go for the c–t,” as one character puts it, “or the t–t?”
Rowling seems determined to distance herself from the innocent pleasures of wizards and Quidditch, and The Casual Vacancy piles on the unpleasantness — not just smack and tawdry sex, but also rape, child abuse, self-mutilation, suicide, pedophilia, and mental illness. It’s all just too much: When the novel finally arrives at its predictable and heavy-handed ending, what started as a lively comedy of manners has turned into an overwrought slog. B–