Thoughtful, amusing tale-spinning with, one imagines, serious film potential.

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JOHN HENRY DAYS

Whitehead, author of the acclaimed Intuitionist (1998), returns with a hilarious, heart-tugging take on the evolution of the American folk hero John Henry—and on the theme of inevitability, or the power of fate.

African-American J. Sutter is a “junketeer,” a freelance journalist who specializes in covering publicity events. Along with his junketeer colleagues, J. excels at finagling his expense account and mooching in general as a way of life. But lately another goal drives him. It’s his quest to beat the junketeer record of nonstop event coverage set by the legendary Bobby Figgis, an aim that has led him into the John Henry Days Festival assignment. The manic, jaded lives of the junketeers form the main line of Whitehead’s busy story—and then there’s a surreal tale told by a junketeer about the murder of the black man by Hell’s Angels at the Stones’s Altamont concert, a tale that just pops up out of nowhere, real Tarantino-like and fateful. But in the tradition of fiction like Doctorow’s Ragtime, Whitehead follows many narrative strings and colorful folk from different eras to explore his theme. Some of those characters come together at the festival in Talcott, West Virginia, a town outside of the Big Bend Tunnel where John Henry supposedly met his Waterloo in his race against the steam drill. Of them all, J.’s path will cross most dramatically with those of Pamela Street, a young black woman who has come to Talcott to meet with the prospective buyer of her dead father’s extensive, obsessively acquired John Henry memorabilia collection; and of Alphonse Miggs, a collector of commemorative stamps who saved J.’s life in an outrageous prime-rib choking incident. Further still, Whitehead spins off riveting stories about John Henry himself, the scholars who traced his legend, and the singers and peddlers who popularized the John Henry ballad.

Thoughtful, amusing tale-spinning with, one imagines, serious film potential.

Pub Date: May 15, 2001

ISBN: 0-385-49819-5

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2001

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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