BREATHING LESSONS

A NOVEL

In Tyler's latest testing of the strangulating tugs and miraculous stretch of familial and marital ties, a middle-aged Baltimore couple (inexplicably linked, like so many of Tyler's lovers) take a one-day's detour-clogged trip to a funeral. It's a circuit of comic bumps and heartbreaking plunges that takes them home again to dwindling hope and options, but also to the certainty of love. Maggie Moran, 48, a nursing-home aide (although years ago, her purse-lipped mother had demanded college), was certainly a "klutz." Everyone, including Maggie's "closed-in, isolate" husband Ira, thought so. Maggie had a "knobby, fumbling way of progressing through life" feeling "as if the world were the tiniest bit out of focus. . .and if she made the smallest adjustment everything would settle perfectly into place." Maggie had indeed "adjusted" the focus of young Fiona, pregnant by Maggie and Ira's failure-bound son Jesse, at the very door of the abortion clinic (surrounded by amateur picketers). Through some hardworking, warmhearted lying, Maggie had forged Jesse and Fiona's marriage; and Maggie's "breathing lessons," coaching Fiona in pregnancy, had as much control over her granddaughter's birth as all Maggie's efforts to prevent the break-up of a young marriage with no connective tissue. Now Maggie is bent on retrieving Fiona and granddaughter back to Jesse—another Moran who's "thrown away his future," like Ira, who had dreams of being a doctor, but was hobbled by his own family, whom he loved and hated. (Could it be, however, in the words of a splintery geezer, netted by Maggie on the highway, that "what you throw away is all that really counts"?) Before the visit to Fiona, there's the funeral, and middle-aged classmates watch silent movies of their young selves. The camera had recorded Maggie and Ira as "ordinary"—in the way a sea shell marks genus but not the undulations of existence. Once home, Maggie's carousel of hopes stops, and she cries out: "What are we two going to live for, all the rest of our lives?" But Ira, wiser, shrewder, offers and welcomes love. A seriocomic journey in which, as always, underlying the character-rooted, richly comic turns, is Tyler's affectionate empathy for those who detour—and "practice life" to "get it right.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 1988

ISBN: 0345485572

Page Count: 345

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1988

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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