An unpretentious but smart reboot of Wild West storytelling.

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THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE

A Texas boy goes searching for his missing momma in an endearing picaresque that evokes Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote and a whole passel of folk tales.

The narrator of this extended shaggy dog story, the first in a series, is Papa, who’s recalling his boyhood in central Texas in the 1880s. His mother has escaped the clutches of his domineering father, Old Karl, and Papa is quickly separated not just from both parents but from his brother as well. So begins the oldest story ever told—a youngster heads off on a journey—but the familiarity of the novel's setup is countered by the rounded, quirky, sometimes-creepy characters Papa encounters and the warmth of Wittliff’s down-home prose. The secondary cast includes Papa’s newborn half brother, whose bird-shaped birthmark holds an oracular power for those around him; Fritz, a stray dog with a strange laughing bark; Calley, a cowboy who’s at once a walking essay in conditional ethics and a father figure to the boy; and Pepe and Peto, Mexican laborers who’ve also escaped Old Karl’s heavy hand. Wittliff, who’s written screenplays for Lonesome Dove and Legends of the Fall, knows his Texas tropes backward and forward. Some of those tropes are overly familiar, and characters tend to appear and disappear in ways that strain credulity. But here too Wittliff knows what he's doing: The novel is less a grab bag of episodes and symbols (though it is that) than a sophisticated consideration of interconnectedness, an idea he tinkers with on practical and metaphysical levels. The elliptical story climaxes at the ridge of the novel’s title, giving the book the feel of an old-fashioned cliffhanger in its closing pages. Wittliff’s Huck-ish voice sometimes runs on a bit long, but he’s a font of well-told wisdom, and Unruh’s illustrations show key moments in the story with appropriately warped perspective and detail.

An unpretentious but smart reboot of Wild West storytelling.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-292-75995-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Univ. of Texas

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2014

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT

A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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