THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
BOOK REVIEW

Well-known names on characters we want to know better

By Danielle Dreilinger
September 25, 2010

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By all rights, this sixth book by Tao Lin ought to be dreadful. It has an unnecessary index, protagonists named after child stars, and a title that pays homage to a famous novelist who has no concrete connection with the book. Lin’s first novel was titled “Eeeee Eee Eeee.’’

But “Richard Yates’’ is neither pretentious nor sneering nor reflexively hip. It is simply a focused, moving, and rather upsetting portrait of two oddballs in love. (Points, too, for the cover image: a man grabbing a yonic conch shell that hides his face.)

Dakota Fanning, a depressed 16-year-old, meets 22-year-old Haley Joel Osment online. Ignore the cover blurb, which makes noises about illicit sex: Though Fanning’s disapproving mother occasionally threatens to call the cops, Fanning and Osment, a hapless author with autism, are equally matched in immaturity. The jolt of the names melts away quickly: These characters have lives of their own.

At first, the relationship is magical. They steal vegan sushi from Whole Foods, watch art films, and spend hours on Gmail chat. He comes from New York to visit her in Jersey — in a town so boring that going to the all-night Price Chopper constitutes entertainment. They sit on a steel railroad bridge and watch kids play. She falls asleep at the Price Chopper cafe while he watches. Even chatting about killing themselves is romantic.

The most pronounced feature of this book is its flat prose — Osment’s autism-inflected voice. The protagonists are always called by their full names. It has the effect of putting a red butterfly behind glass: detached but brighter.

“They sat on a cement slab by the river. In the distance was a steel bridge with cars going in both directions. There were no clouds and it was about seventy degrees. Sometimes it was a little windy. Dakota Fanning was looking at her dress and boots and doing things with her hands. ‘That’s what I do when I’m nervous,’ thought Haley Joel Osment.’’

The style can also be funny: After Osment’s brother asks him to put on pants at home, he e-mails, “. . . you are superstitious. You believe there is a magical difference between boxer shorts and normal shorts.’’

As time passes, the relationship starts to slip its traces. Lin is brilliant at capturing the moments in a relationship where everything turns bad at once: “After a few minutes he felt her touching him. He opened his eyes and looked at her concerned facial expression and closed his eyes. She stopped touching him. She lay facing away. He hugged her a little and thought about hugging her until she reciprocated. He lay on his back and closed his eyes. ‘If she touches me now I will touch her and we will be nice again,’ he thought.’’

Osment simply can’t understand anyone who isn’t single-minded. When Fanning decides to make a stuffed animal for his mother, he berates her for not doing it as soon as possible. If she really wants to lose weight — a key demand, couched as concern — she should always drink green tea, never a single vegan smoothie.

Is Fanning even overweight? The only artifact of the pop-culture names is the initial visual imprint: In this critic’s imagination, the never-described Osment has a shock of blond hair and Fanning is a waif. As for connections to Richard Yates, it’s certainly possible, but beyond the general theme of domestic drama in the suburbs it’s nothing a casual “Revolutionary Road’’ reader sees.

Though Osment means to help, not hurt, his narcissism is devastating: Laboring under his self-improvement regime, Fanning becomes more and more self-destructive. The list of lies he makes her write is terrifying and pitiful: “On October 2 I told you I had highlighted more of my lists and read them on the way home. I highlighted but didn’t read them on the way home.’’

In depression, in suburbia, you see no way out. In “Richard Yates,’’ it’s hard to imagine an ending. Lin’s flat world takes over your mind to such a degree that Osment almost seems reasonable. Like Fanning, you don’t want it to end.

Danielle Dreilinger, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at somervillescene@gmail.com.

RICHARD YATES By Tao Lin

Melville House, 206 pp.,

$14.95