A man goes in search of his addict son only to end up lost in his own relentless crises.
Hunter (Ugly Girls, 2014, etc.) focuses on the grotesque and unlovable in this novel that spreads like a wildfire from West Virginia down to the verdant sludge that is Florida. Meet Greg Reinart—retired accountant, compulsive overeater, 58 going on dead (if he doesn’t change his diet). His second wife, Deb, is also a retired accountant, but whereas Greg is a slovenly presence in their home, Deb is immaculately manicured, motivated, and somewhat removed, yet in a pleasant way, like a host on an HGTV show, “nothing worrisome; nothing out of place.” His son, GJ, a grown man with a harrowing drug addiction, has been missing for three weeks. Because GJ has always “felt as elusive and slippery as his own beating heart,” Greg commits to “never, ever stop looking” for his son. And so, with trepidation, Greg embarks on a precipitous search and leaves his safe home in West Virginia to RV it to his spark plug of an ex-wife Marie’s Orlando condo. While Hunter's commanding narrative hurtles forward, it also pauses to coast as Greg ruminates on his complicated past, which we come to discover motivates his own morbid obsessions. The reproachful voice of his late mother pervades his consciousness, but often, her character feels archetypal, undermining Hunter’s lurid prose with trite remarks such as, “Now it’s time for you to be a man and support your family.” Tortured by his insatiable hunger—for food, alcohol, belonging, affirmation—Greg has been made to feel inconsequential by time and fatherhood. And it gradually becomes clear that GJ might be better off on his own, outside the vortex of his father’s misery. When Marie joins Greg on his futile hunt for redemption, their messy relationship, like an alligator wakened from its slumber, pulls the story toward darker waters.
A savage tale of parenthood and squandered hope from an author whose unsparing eye never ceases to subvert the mundane.
This ribald, acerbic, and poignant coming-of-age story throws open a window to an African nation’s struggle for maturity.
Mabanckou’s crafty, edgy bildungsroman is set in the author’s native Republic of the Congo (or Congo-Brazzaville, as it is often called to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire). Its hero bears the unwieldy name Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, whose rough translation is: “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” Little wonder he’s called “Black Moses” or “Moses” or even “Mose” for short at the orphanage on whose doorstep he was abandoned as an infant. Life for Moses is bewildering but relatively bucolic until his 13th year, when the orphanage’s priest—who served as surrogate father to him and the other boys—vanishes and its director announces a new regime of strictly enforced obedience to the ruling Congolese Workers' Party. If anybody’s more evil than the director, it’s the 17-year-old twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala, who impose their own reign of terror on the other orphans, complete with sadistic physical reprisals. Moses fears such reprisals when he laces their food with hot pepper, but the twins recruit him as a collaborator (whom they later dub “Little Pepper”), and all three escape to the seaside metropolis of Pointe-Noire, where nefariousness on an even grander scale awaits them. Though no dates are provided, those familiar with the tumultuous history of Congo-Brazzaville in the 20th century are able to figure out that the disruptions and upheavals in Moses’ life occur in tandem with the ascent of the country’s totalitarian, repressive, and often corrupt politics in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. But it’s not necessary to know such details to appreciate Mabanckou’s narrative ingenuity and his authoritative compassion toward his people’s history, both collective and personal.
This tightly contained, densely packed story issues a challenge that never loses its urgency: how does a person cling to a sense of autonomy when it’s under siege by so many powerful forces?
A New York City moving company gets into trouble when it starts doing evictions in a wide-ranging novel that touches on political, religious, and social issues.
David King’s father survived Buchenwald to open a U.S. furniture-moving business that his son has expanded while ruining his marriage via sex with his manager. As the book opens in 2015, David is divorced, has new teeth and hair plugs, and is awkwardly, comically schmoozing among WASPs at a political fundraiser in the Hamptons. He manages to connect with real estate mogul Fraunces Bower III, a link that will resonate in the novel’s climax. David’s Uncle Shoyl survived Auschwitz, and Shoyl’s grandson, Yoav, joins King’s Moving after compulsory service in the Israeli army. His squad-mate Uri is having a hard time adjusting to civilian life, and he also eventually flies to New York to work for the moving company. All these elements will come together when a Vietnam War veteran named Avery Luter/Imamu Nabi misses too many mortgage payments on the home he inherited from his mother and stages a mini-Occupation as the King moving company receives its first job from the Bower real estate empire—evicting Luter. Cohen (The Book of Numbers, 2015, etc.) shows an impressive knowledge of life in the cab of a moving van and in the ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces. He touches on two wars and two combat zones (counting brief allusions to Afghanistan). He is funny and caustic and has a marvelous snap in his dialogue.
For a writer whose last two novels total some 1,400 pages, Cohen has slimmed down here but still covers a lot of territory.
Facing his erstwhile boyfriend’s wedding to another man, his 50th birthday, and his publisher’s rejection of his latest manuscript, a miserable midlist novelist heads for the airport.
When it comes to the literary canon, Arthur Less knows he is “as superfluous as the extra a in quaalude,” but he does get the odd invitation—to interview a more successful author, to receive an obscure prize, to tour French provincial libraries, that sort of thing. So rather than stay in San Francisco and be humiliated when his younger man of nine years' standing marries someone else (he can’t bear to attend, nor can he bear to stay home), he puts together a patchwork busman’s holiday that will take him to Paris, Morocco, Berlin, Southern India, and Japan. Of course, anything that can go wrong does—from falling out a window to having his favorite suit eaten by a stray dog, and as far as Less runs, he will not escape the fact that he really did lose the love of his life. Meanwhile, there’s no way to stop that dreaded birthday, which he sees as the definitive end of a rather extended youth: “It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.” Yet even this conversation occurs in the midst of a make-out session with a handsome Spanish stranger on a balcony at a party in Paris…hinting that there may be steaks and coffee on the other side. Upping the tension of this literary picaresque is the fact that the story is told by a mysterious narrator whose identity and role in Less’ future is not revealed until the final pages.
Seasoned novelist Greer (The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, 2013, etc.) clearly knows whereof he speaks and has lived to joke about it. Nonstop puns on the character’s surname aside, this is a very funny and occasionally wise book.
A down-on-his-luck cartoonist is besieged by worries about money, art, and infidelity.
Klam’s debut novel following a book of short stories (Sam the Cat, 2000) is narrated by Rich, a celebrated comic-book artist and magazine illustrator who’s spending a few days teaching at a tony East Coast artist’s retreat. His upper-middle-class facade of cultural accomplishment is rapidly collapsing, though: his signature work is six years old, the bespoke magazine (like the retreat) pays poorly, and, most importantly, he’s been cheating on his wife, Robin, with Amy, a student at the retreat. Should he ditch Robin (sexless marriage, two spirit-killing young children) and pursue a relationship with Amy, a billionaire’s wife whom he loves and who could perhaps resolve his money woes? And how ethical would it be for him to mine all this for the second book he’s stalled on? In short, Rich is an unsympathetic character marinating in self-pity, but Klam carries the story by framing his predicament as (mostly) comic, poking fun not just at Rich’s narcissistic fumblings, but the media landscape, the wealthy’s obliviousness to everyday reality, overearnest students, and the forced-fun get-togethers at the workshop. (It’s at one such event, a softball game, where Amy breaks an arm, prompting a surge in Rich’s romantic attentions as well as a foolish I’m-my-own-man jewelry purchase.) There are a few too many scenes of Rich’s maudlin musings and philanderer’s rationalizations, but when Klam sustains a satirical mode (bolstered by John Cuneo’s caricatures), the novel sings, making Rich a fascinating figure despite his flaws. He might be working on an old-hat “semiautobiographical story told in arty-farty black-and-white panels of a heterosexual white guy,” but he insists that “until the day people stopped wishing they could cram their spouse into a dumpster, my story was relevant, too.”
A tale of middle-aged ennui that gets sharper as it gets funnier.
This brilliantly conceived and artfully detailed novel set in the Egyptian immigration bureaucracy is both a comedy and tragedy of errors.
“Welcome to Egypt!...Everything was invented here. Poetry, science, math. The calendar, the plow.” With this greeting, Cairo taxi driver Mustafa ushers Hana, an Iraqi-American who has arrived for a job with the U.N. refugee office, into his cab for the first of many wild rides. (After she accidentally damages his car, they are bonded for life.) One of Hana’s first cases is that of an Iraqi named Dalia, the wife of a man who helped rebuild water mains for the Americans in Baghdad until violent retaliation engulfed them both. Only he was given asylum in the U.S.; she's now trying to join him but is too reserved to confess the details which qualify her for relocation. “A single-file queue almost a million people long appeared in Hana’s mind. Dalia was an invisible dot in the distance, with no chance whatsoever of leaving Egypt.” What Hana doesn’t yet know is that Dalia’s immigration lawyer, an American named Charlie, is in love with his client and is about to cook up a crazy plan to help her outwit the system. The unfolding scheme also drags in Aos, Charlie’s translator and only friend, a young man who joins the nightly protests against the government in Tahrir Square. There are far too many great things about this book to list in this small space: the tension and energy of the plot; the tragic back stories of Charlie and Hana; the vignettes of Dalia’s husband in Boston; the richness and subtlety of detail in the writing. In one scene, Charlie and Aos are sitting in a Lebanese cafe. Aos is bursting to explain to Charlie everything that's wrong with his plan but can't bring himself to speak. Meanwhile, a patron who is smoking demands coals for his shisha, already piled high. “Aos’s heart sank to witness reason’s failing: the headwaiter stacking hot coals on top of hot coals. Only his delicate and ingenious positioning saved the tower from collapse.”
The ironies of bureaucracy and wartime, à la Catch-22, meet the ironies of love and sacrifice, à la The Necklace, profoundly humanizing the global refugee crisis. Bassingthwaighte’s virtuoso debut deserves the widest attention.
In a nimble and substantial novel, Gregory (Harrison Squared, 2015, etc.) delves into the lives of the members of the eccentric and psychically gifted Telemachus family.
On a summer day in 1963, Teddy Telemachus, a flamboyant and charming con man, card shark, and devotee of sleight of hand, cheats his way into a government study about psychic abilities. He meets Maureen McKinnon, a genuine psychic of enormous and mysterious power, and immediately falls in love with her. They get married, have three children with particular psychic gifts, and become famous as the Amazing Telemachus Family until a combination of televised embarrassment and personal loss begins to unravel their lives. Thirty years later, the Telemachus family’s lives are in tatters and sliding ever further into the dreariness of debt, unhappiness, and possible mental instability when the 14-year-old Matty Telemachus plunges them back into a world of cleverly plotted and swiftly paced adventure. Gregory’s novel deploys a cast of odd, damaged, enormously likable characters in a complex story that gracefully balances the outrageous melodrama of Chicago mobsters and shadowy government agencies with the ordinary mysteries of family dynamics. Each of the characters, even when absurdly cartoonish, has a precise energy and depth that makes him or her irresistible. The chapters shift between their points of view, revealing different threads of the story with masterful control and giving the novel an illusion of gleeful messiness and the argumentative, frequently poignant feeling of a family gathering. While the novel revels in elements that entertain—criminal capers, magic, nostalgia for the internet chat rooms and computer paraphernalia of the 1990s—it never shies away from the real emotion of digging up the lies and illusions that sink into every family history. Readers will emerge from the fray sure they know each Telemachus down to the smudges on their hearts.
A skillfully written family drama that employs quirk and magic with grace.
Greece is the word for a trio of almost-septuagenarian women determined to enjoy an idyll free of family and romantic entanglements…or is it?
Ruth, Dania, and Bess, the triad at the center of Freed’s (The Servants’ Quarters, 2009, etc.) slyly delivered version of a novel of women’s self-actualization, retreat to a Greek isle for a yearlong experiment in communal living undisturbed by children, grandchildren, lovers, or others. Ruth, a South African expatriate and mystery novelist, narrates the trio’s saga, directly and via journal excerpts and magazine columns chronicling the sojourn. The column, optimistically entitled “Granny Au Go Go,” provides Ruth and her half sister—the indolent Bess—with an opportunity to “tell it like it is” for women of a certain age as well as a way to illuminate the differences between the truisms of later life and the stereotypes of grannyhood. Dania, a kibbutz psychologist given to malapropisms, balances out the threesome with an apparent self-absorption that masks a troubling reality. When snakes—in the form of family, friends, and lovers—invade the proverbial Eden created by the three, the carefully crafted equilibrium among the group is balanced and rebalanced and balanced again. Comic relief is provided by the (often painfully earnest) politically correct edits a faceless editor provides for Ruth’s columns, but macabre and antic episodes may distract the reader's attention from Freed's observations about women’s lives and second-wave feminism woven throughout the tale. Fraught relationships between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, and men and women are explored and detailed against the backdrop of usually perfect scenery, but it is the sometimes-madcap behavior of Freed’s characters that may be the takeaway for many readers.
Replete with references to Greek mythology, Freed’s modern retelling of a timeless tale of self-fulfillment wanders into surprising territory along the way.