An ambitious but self-indulgent portrait of a city’s underbelly.


Gangsters, college kids, sports grifters, and a deaf businessman collide in Birnbaum’s sprawling debut saga of corruption in Seattle.

At Seattle’s fictional Myriadal College, student Benison Behrenreich struggles on the basketball team, which recruited him only because his wealthy father, Marc, bribed the athletic director. Marc, meanwhile, is under investigation for defrauding the government with bogus telephone-translation services for deaf people like himself—a scam masterminded by Mafioso Johnny Raciti. As part of another enterprise, Johnny has his granddaughter Julia recruit Peter Fosch, an off-road motorcycling phenom, to transport a mysterious drug for the mysterious “Mr. K,” a Russian émigré crime lord. Things get further complicated when Julia and Peter fall in love, and the latter gets caught between Johnny’s and Mr. K’s mutual betrayals. Percolating beneath these lurid plot points are emotionally fraught details involving child molestation and family strife. Birnbaum’s meandering yarn unfolds in scenes of woozy drug binges, financial intrigue, tough-guy posturing, grisly killings, and gruesome cleanups; at times, it reads like a mashup of David Foster Wallace and Mickey Spillane, rewritten by James Joyce. Birnbaum is a gifted writer who crafts evocative imagery—“Sunlight bloomed ambient dust like gaseous urine”—and excels at conjuring atmosphere in every context, from retail checkout lines to basketball drills (“God damn it, Jonesy. This time set a screen, don’t just sidle up to Gabe like you wanna tell him about daffodils”). His skills sometimes lack discipline, however, and he has a tendency to wrap empty clichés in dense, cryptic language: “Adolescent angst, far from liminal, was the hazy dawn of his becoming.” He also overwrites banal events, as when Julia washes her face: “A hard scrub using imported soap, a coarse brown lump coagulated by whole grains, whittled the whiteheads gorging on oils in her nasal nooks and crannies.” Four novels’ worth of plot jockey for space in these pages, but they’re elbowed out by superbly observed scenes that nonetheless lack dramatic tension or narrative import. When Birnbaum figures out which of his characters’ actions and emotions are important, he’ll be a writer to reckon with.

An ambitious but self-indulgent portrait of a city’s underbelly.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-950122-00-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Dead Rabbits LLC

Review Posted Online: Jan. 29, 2020

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

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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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


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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