A pungent and lyrical portrait of mid-'60s black protest.

THE SYSTEM OF DANTE'S HELL

A fevered and impressionistic riff on the struggles of blacks in the urban North and rural South, as told through the prism of The Inferno.

First published in 1965 under the name LeRoi Jones, the first novel by Baraka (1934-2014) is roughly the story of the narrator as he travels through Newark and eventually lands in Louisiana, where he’s stationed in the Army. But though there are interactions, relationships, conflicts, and reckonings, plot details are beside the point here—the novel lives in its language, which is often abstracted but conveys a jazzy, street-wise intensity. (“City is gluttony. Mind you! The sparks hiss and sun drips on leaves.”) The narrator moves from interior monologue, lamenting his struggles as a black man (“The black Job. Mind gone. Head lost.”), to sketches of friends and lovers both male and female, though love is mostly conflict (one chapter, told in dialogue, depicts a rape). The narrative defogger snaps on in the final chapter, revealing a harrowing portrait of a drunken evening off base that devolves into a brutal beating that leaves the narrator raging at his sense of masculinity as well as the degradations of racism. Baraka’s goal wasn’t so much to rework Dante (though the book includes a chart of hell’s levels) as it was to argue for hell as a living concept for African-Americans in the 1960s. The influence of Camus’ notion that hell is other people is plain, but the torments placed on oneself are paramount too: in an afterword, Baraka notes the “torture of being the unseen object, and, the constantly observed subject.” Other writers addressed race more directly, but for all its linguistic slipperiness, Baraka’s language conveys the feelings of fear, violation, and fury with a surprising potency.

A pungent and lyrical portrait of mid-'60s black protest.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61775-396-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Akashic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2015

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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