My favorite quote about the most anticipated 12:01 a.m. in kidland since Cinderella’s getaway came from 12-year-old Ettie Lewis of London, interviewed in July 8’s Washington Post: “My mummy promised to take me to America someday. But I’m glad I’m not there now, because I would just die if I had to wait another five hours for this book.” Lucky Ettie! Unless her mummy made her go straight to bed, which isn’t a fight I’d relish, she was well into Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by the time my pal Dolores and I joined the queue at the Borders where we’d reserved one of the two copies we ended up buying.
At crunch time, we couldn’t face taking turns—and kidland, my foot. If there were more than half a dozen actual children on hand, they’d crawled into the Self-Help stacks for some shut-eye. Lots of the adult necks in sight must have belonged to thoughtful parents, not besotted fans, but we wound up between a gay couple buying a copy for a gal pal’s 32nd birthday and a jolly guy who planned to speed-read all night—his girlfriend had dibs next morning. As we all parted ways with our mission accomplished, I felt oddly rueful that we’d never see each other again. For a Grinch like me, the instant bonding with strangers over the marketing juggernaut of the millennium is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
That you won’t find any grousing here doesn’t mean a backlash isn’t inevitable, and not just from Muggles sick of the gigantic cult hogging the bestseller list. (If you’ve somehow avoided a crash course in J.K. Rowling’s lingo, Al Gore is a Muggle—someone without a magical bone in his body. While George W. isn’t, he clearly went to Slytherin—the haughtiest house at Hogwarts School of Wizardry. Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader are Boggarts, instantly taking the shape of whatever frightens the beholder most.) Every grown-up devotee I know was worried that Goblet of Fire‘s hype tsunami would wash away Harry’s charm, and for some readers it probably has.
Me, I’ve considered launching a class-action suit to stop the schmuck who brought us Home Alone from directing the screen version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling’s first book about the teenage wizard whose parents were murdered in his infancy by evil Lord Voldemort. The plan is to get a parade of film critics to testify that Chris Columbus’s only acquaintance with magic has been convincing Hollywood’s Voldemorts he’s got talent, but even that won’t prevent the tchotchke barrage. Warner’s estimate of $1 billion in merchandising ca-chung was guaranteed to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, but loyalists fret that the products won’t—they’re pretty sure that the commercial version of Every Flavor Beans will omit the ones that taste like earwax.
Gags like that spell out what ought to be obvious, namely that these really are children’s books. Rowling’s sense of what 11-year-olds revel in extends not only to all sorts of enjoyably icky comestibles and creatures—the new book introduces Blast-Ended Screwts, creepy-crawlies whose only function is as full-time fart jokes—but to fantastic feasts so mouthwatering they make me wonder just how hungry she got during her famous stint on the dole. Yet if her control of tone ensures that the gross-outs are never stupid and the materialism whose role in kids’ lives she’s got such a healthy appreciation for is never a be-all and end-all, the real marvel is that she’s never cloying. Crammed with practical reactions to astonishing events and magical characters whose flaws and petty streaks stay recognizably earthbound—it’s typical that the only Hogwarts prof into mysticism is a butt of ridicule—Rowling’s books aren’t just appealingly commonsensical but surprisingly tough-minded.
Surprising to me, anyhow—I wouldn’t know Charlotte’s Web from Charlotte’s Web site. That’s why the analogy that clicks for me is John Le Carré. Not only are the delights uncannily similar—the regular reacquaintance with a rep company of stalwarts, rotters, and weak reeds, the backstories that evolve into new intricacies in each episode, the elaboration of institutional byways and intrigue—but the comparison cuts both ways. Every halfway honest George Smiley fan knew Le Carré was peddling boys’-book fantasies behind those impressively Conradian false whiskers; in a sense, Rowling has simply restored this stuff to its proper shelf by serving it up to readers too young to shave.
What keeps them turning pages, however, is that she’s a genius at construction. In the first three books, damn near every detail had a payoff; dozens of bits snuck in as comedy diversions or atmospheric goodies popped into place in the plot. As well as being more ample, Goblet of Fire is less tightly wrought. While some of the narrative vagaries will no doubt be cleared up before Harry’s graduation three books hence, others just look like glitches or unerased first thoughts—suggesting, as does the rough finish on a few scenes, a hurried and/or harried composition, with the world breathing down Rowling’s neck the whole time.
None of which matters much, because this book is the kiddie-lit equivalent of Sgt. Pepper or The Godfather, Part II—the ambitious upgrade of a proven crowd-pleaser that separates fans enthralled by the new complexity from those who not unreasonably miss the simple pleasures of yore. On the hype-fueled question both camps are breathless about—”Who dies?”—I can’t tell if Rowling has something up her sleeve or just lost her nerve; a lot of subtle preparation points to the loss of a character whose death would be truly horrific, and the one who buys the farm instead strikes me as a blatantly contrived substitute. Yet the layers of political satire and social criticism and something-about-England national epic and Freudian banana peels for her now pubescent cast (the “weeny owl” that Harry’s sidekick Ron clutches in his fist is to goggle at) that Rowling packs into her ever expanding canvas—without ever losing sight of her primary task of providing treats, laughs, and a great read for the kids—are as audacious as anyone could ask.
Then again, who was asking, except Rowling herself? Not George Will, I bet, whose prepub endorsement of Pottermania must haunt him; he probably never noticed that Voldemort’s 11-year reign of terror lasts exactly as long as Margaret Thatcher’s term in office, a detail that’s often made me wonder just how damn mad Rowling got during her famous stint on the dole. Judging from Goblet of Fire, plenty: Her satiric attacks on bloody-minded bigotry, arrogance, and the fatuous complacency that gets her goat in both its ruling-class and middle-class versions turn thrillingly scathing here. One much advertised yummy was a Quidditch World Cup, but that romp leads into the most upsetting scene she’s written since Harry’s parents died; during the postgame bacchanal, Voldemort’s supporters torture helpless Muggles for sport. More amusingly, that good girl Hermione gets radicalized after discovering she’s a beneficiary of wizard-style slave labor, only to come up against revolution-from-above’s perennial quandary: The house elves whose lot she aims to better are too demoralized to want it much.
As usual, the Luke Skywalker-vs.-Darth Vader template looms larger than I’d like. But George Lucas is a humorless creep, and Rowling’s fantasy is not only infinitely livelier and more humane but just more specific. In these books, good and evil aren’t cardboard qualities; when it comes to locating the roots of monstrous behavior in snobbery or callousness or social fears or lust for power, count on her to call a spade a spade. On the flip side, adult virtue never stops getting more complicated. That’s why my favorite of her characters is Snape the nasty Potions teacher, who doesn’t get any more likable once he turns out to be on Our Side—at what we now learn was some cost. The reason his big decision in the book’s into-the-storm finale is scary and moving at once is that he’s a genuinely awful human being, and I wonder: Can he possibly be turning into Rowling’s tragic hero? See you next midnight, gang.