cover image The Devil in the Dooryard

The Devil in the Dooryard

Gregory Blake Smith. William Morrow & Company, $0 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-688-06664-2

Smith's ambitious, experimental first novel takes its title from the writings of the preacher and moralist Cotton Mather. Using several other 17th century American narrativesi.e., a ""Description of New England'' and an Indian captivityas models and subtexts, protagonist John Wheelwright, who calls himself ``Wright,'' inveighs in the spirit of a Puritan divine against today's evils of abortion, infidelity, shoddy architecture, game shows and female vanity, to name a few. Wright, assuming the identity of a young cabinetmaker and historian of colonial Massachusetts, does not always succeed in interesting his wife, Hetty, in his archeological digs or his communications with long-dead ancestors and the Wampanoag sachem King Philip. Hetty's main concern is her professional guardianship of a pair of autistic twins, whose plight reflects the fallen world. As it shuttles between the past and present, tracing current American woes to the prophecies of our Anglican and Puritan forefathers, the novel is too didactic, too stuffed with lengthily quoted literary passages and moral outrage to seize the reader's sympathetic attention. Smith is capable of writing very well, but this novel misfires. (September 19)