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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

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

Awards & Accolades

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT


  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016


  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    finalist


  • New York Times Bestseller


  • Pulitzer Prize Winner


  • National Book Award Winner

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 12, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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