By Sol Stein (Dell; 1975)
A compulsive 1970s page turner about wayward kids that at times recalls the queasy air of similarly themed anti-classics like LET’S GO PLAY AT THE ADAMS’ and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. Overall, however, THE CHILDKEEPER isn’t nearly as accomplished as either.
Roger Maxwell is a successful banker with a sexy wife and four apparently normal kids. One of those kids, the twenty-ish Harry, is away at college, while back on the home front the sixteen-year-old Jeb lords over his two younger siblings. The proceedings span a three-day weekend, during which Roger, who’s initially preoccupied about an important business meeting scheduled for Monday, learns that not all is well with his children.
An early episode involving the humiliation of a young girl reveals that Jeb, who orchestrates the torment, is a borderline psychopath. To make matters worse Greco, a 19-year-old marijuana dealing friend of Jeb, comes to stay at the Maxwell’s massive country house (and uses it to stash his weed) for the weekend. After witnessing the kids horrifically torture a squirrel and engage in a rowdy late night skinny dipping session, Roger is forced to confront his failures as a father, and also the none-too-stable foundations of his seemingly placid existence.
Further trouble comes from Harry, who makes a long distance phone call from prison after accidentally killing his girlfriend in a car crash, as well as a much nastier second murder, a shyster lawyer, Greco’s outraged father and Roger’s own increasingly unstable children, who come to view him as the enemy. The sentiment, of course, is mutual!
All this is compelling enough, and drafted in superbly economical prose, but the impact is lessened by: 1). a thoroughly unlikable protagonist, 2). a narrative that over-relies on coincidence, 3). too many chaotic and distracting viewpoint shifts, 4). a “shock” ending I predicted far in advance of the final pages, and 5). a portrayal of an African-American character (the pot-dealing miscreant Greco) that is, frankly, racist. As a rule I generally try not to invoke the R-word, but in this case I think its use is entirely appropriate!