DIRTY BIRD BLUES

Major, a prolific man of letters, seems to have abandoned for good the experimental styles that characterized much of his early work (My Amputations, 1986, etc.). His latest is a quite conventional morality tale dressed up with his extensive, if somewhat academic, knowledge of Afro-American slang. The lexicographer in Major (Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, not reviewed) gets the better of him in an otherwise simple narrative about black life circa 1950. Manfred Banks, 25, born in Georgia, hates the winters in Chicago. An aspiring bluesman, he can't find day work and spends most of his waking hours in pursuit of the ``Dirty Bird'' (Old Crow whiskey). His wife has taken their baby girl to live with a preacher man, and his only friend, guitarist Solomon Thigpen, is also singing the ``dirty bird blues.'' A violent episode with the preacher and the police encourages Man to head to Omaha, where his older sister is leading a model life; her husband even lands Man a job at a steel plant, while Man begins gigging on weekends at the local hot spot. Soon Man's family joins him, and prospects look good until some racists at work decide to harass him. He retreats further into the bottle. When Solomon comes west, Man's wife fears the worst. But a long, drunken night, during which Man sees ``something deep and ugly come out'' in himself, sets him on the road to sobriety. This simple tale is punctuated with long stream-of-consciousness dream sequences in which Manfred imagines what success might be like, worries about losing his wife to Jesus, and sees himself lynched. Major also employs an extensive knowledge of the blues idiom- -Manfred is constantly thinking in lyrics, even if the moment doesn't seem to warrant it. There's a powerful, persuasive use of language here, but it's suspended in too studied a tale—one that never gets cooking.

Pub Date: June 1, 1996

ISBN: 1-56279-083-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1996

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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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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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