The latest from a generation of literary novelists who are erasing the distinction between art and pulp.

ZONE ONE

The zombie genre provides unlikely inspiration for the author’s creative renewal.

Whitehead (Sag Harbor, 2009, etc.) never writes the same book twice, though his eclectic output had fallen short of the promise he flashed in his early novels (The Intuitionist, 1998, etc.). Yet here he sinks his teeth into a popular format and emerges with a literary feast, producing his most compulsively readable work to date. Though there’s enough chomp-and-spurt gorefest to satiate fans of the format, Whitehead transforms the zombie novel into an allegory of contemporary Manhattan (and, by extension, America), where “it was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been” and the never-explained apocalypse “sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence.” The reader’s guide through this particular circle of hell is a clean-up/extermination operative called Mark Spitz (for reasons that aren’t worth the elaborate explanation the novel eventually gives). He was formerly employed as a social-network functionary for a Starbucks-style coffee chain, an occupation that seems even more ludicrous in the wake of a society transformed by hordes of organ-eating zombies. (A colleague’s former occupation was “a sommelier at a high-end eatery in Cambridge that specialized in offal.”) With its savage sense of humor and thematic ambitions, the narrative is to contemporary zombie novels what the movies of George Romero are to other zombie flicks. As survivors of the “Last Night” struggle through “PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder," the government (located in Buffalo) peddles hope in the form of its “American Phoenix Rising” campaign, with its own power-ballad anthem: “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction).” When the protagonist was a child, he asked his father the meaning of the word “apocalypse.” His father replied, “It means that in the future, things will be even worse than they are now.” And, sure enough, they are.

The latest from a generation of literary novelists who are erasing the distinction between art and pulp.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-385-52807-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2011

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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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