The Blue Bowl by George Minot

(Knopf) $24

When I was growing up in Maine, I delighted in one particular word specific to the state: Masshole. This was the common nickname for any member of a wealthy family from Massachusetts who would "summer" in expensive coastal cabins on the Maine coast, far away from the trailer parks and abundant trashy pizza parlor/convenience stores that Mainers can't seem to live without. George Minot's debut novel, The Blue Bowl, about a family of Massholes, is a literary mystery--that is to say, the whodunit is not nearly as important as the characters, the setting, the florid language. A Masshole dad is slain and his slacker Masshole son is accused of the murder due to an ongoing fight between the two over the Masshole summer home kept by the family.

There is so much in this book that is striking, and so much that is overwritten. The Blue Bowl staggers at 374 pages, when it could have accomplished more, and better, at nearly half that. Sharp, predatory lines like "His face went set like exertion on the wane," or the dozens of half-page sentences that swoop through the book, are lessened by sentences like "He smirked like the truly smirky guy he was." Indulgences sing arias for attention, pulling the reader out of the book--in one of the bigger literary forehead-slappers, the murdered man's cat is named Witness. Simon, the accused son, seems like a protagonist we should be concerned for, or at least interested in, but his whine never reaches the right key for sympathy, and despite my hereditary loathing for the Massholes of my youth, I wanted to feel something for him. In its overachieving drive, the novel fails to give a heart to the characters who should rightfully be its center.

George Minot reads at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S Main St, 624-6600) at 7:30 pm on Mon April 19; free.