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Rowling’s ‘Vacancy’ filled with people you don’t want to meet

British writer J.K. Rowling poses for photographers with her new book entitled: 'The Casual Vacancy' Southbank Centre LondThursday Sept. 27

British writer J.K. Rowling poses for the photographers with her new book, entitled: 'The Casual Vacancy', at the Southbank Centre in London, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012. The book, published by Little, Brown Book Group, is Rowling's first novel for adults after writing the Harry Potter series. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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Updated: November 5, 2012 11:34AM

Ooh, a big fat book of fiction by J.K. Rowling, set in a town called Pagford and chronicling the adventures of characters with names such as Barry Fairbrother, Fats Wall, Sukhvinder Jawanda, Krystal Weedon and Cubby Wall? Sounds positively Potter-esque!

In name only. Once you start reading The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s ballyhooed first foray into “adult” literature, you’re plunged into a bleak, all-too-real world filled with death, drug addiction, grimy sexual encounters, child abuse, bullying, class wars ­— and characters you’d move away from if they sat next to you in a restaurant.

Remember the Dursleys, those grotesque humans that housed Harry Potter when he was on break from Hogwarts? How would you like to spend 500 pages with people less cartoonish but equally horrible?

It’s not that Rowling can’t write. The Harry Potter books will endure for centuries, thanks to Rowling’s boundless imagination and her gift for creating worlds and characters that sprung from the pages. Though The Casual Vacancy is set in an infinitely more mundane world, hardly a section goes by without another example of a perfectly constructed metaphor or a sharp line of dialogue. She’s got it.

And although The Casual Vacancy is getting mixed reviews at best and is stirring up a bit of controversy in Britain (more on that in a bit), not even a thousand times a thousand negative articles could have derailed its instant ascendancy to the top of the bestseller lists, just a week after the novel’s release. Rowling’s novel swatted aside Fifty Shades of Grey as casually as Brian Urlacher putting an end to those flying pixies in that Comcast commercial.

One has to applaud Rowling for having the discipline and the passion to write another work of fiction post-Potter. If your books sold 450 million copies and gave you a net worth of some $1 billion, would you keep writing or would you spend your days buying private islands?

The question is why she would write about such … small people. Yes, there are big themes about the smugness and prejudices of the relatively well-to-do, which has led to some in the British press to claim Rowling “hates” the middle class. (The London Daily Mail labeled the book a “socialist manifesto.”) But Rowling tells her tale through characters that range from the mean-spirited to the cold-hearted to the just plain soulless. (This could be said of most of the children as well as the adults in The Casual Vacancy.) Even her descriptions of the physical characteristics of the majority of these people will have you cringing:

“Howard Mollison … was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his [bleep], wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a [bleep] is designed.”

Lovely. Looking forward to spending more time with that chap!

Despicable Muggles

Then there are the poor folks of “the Fields,” the blighted neighborhood on the edge of Pagford. Not only are they living in abject poverty, they talk like actors in a poor adaptation Dickens:

“She done loads fer us.”

“No, she ain’.”

“Fer you, maybe … My bus’ness, innit.”

“Obbo’s comin’ round, is ‘e?”

One can almost see the artfully placed corked smudges on their faces.

One of the more likable characters in The Casual Vacancy is Barry Fairbrother, who has the misfortune of dropping dead on the third page of the book. Mr. Fairbrother lives on in memory and as “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother,” the pseudonym for a character that hacks into the parish council’s website and begins posting damning truths about the unsavory deeds of some of the contenders to take Fairbrother’s seat on the council.

The moment when that particular character hacks the site and scores a triumph is one of the far too few memorable acts of heroism in Rowling’s story. Most of the time we are stuck in the muck with heroin instead of heroines, the wicked instead of wizards. Of course such archetypes can be the stuff of memorable fiction, but Rowling creates very little magic this time around.

It’s one thing for a work to be grim; it’s quite another problem for it to be dull.

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