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NIGHT SOIL

A compelling novel about queer identity and the sins that continue to haunt the American project.

A lush, provocative, and thought-provoking story of queer identity at the intersection of art, family history, capitalism, and the American racial order.

Peck (Visions and Revisions, 2015, etc.) tells the story of Judas, a scion of the fallen Stammers clan. The Stammers were once a family of Southern patricians who built a fortune on their coal empire—which means their wealth was bound up in the twin sins of slavery and environmental destruction. Like a protagonist in a Greek play, Judas pays the price for his ancestors' sins: A birth defect renders his body mangled, making him the visual representation of the Stammers' historic crimes. In an apartment near the cultish Academy that his great-grandfather Marcus founded to repent for the family's use of slave labor, Judas lives with his neglectful mother, Dixie, a talented artist whose ceramic pots are worth thousands. Consumed by the sudden eruption of his sexual appetite, Judas goes to elaborate lengths to satisfy his desire for his black classmates at the Academy. Meanwhile, in the shadow of Dixie's fame, he struggles to discover the identity of his absent father. When that missing father's books suddenly begin arriving at his and Dixie's home en masse, Judas begins to explore his family's entanglement with America's original sins. While this novel finds Peck concerned with the nation's historic debts, it is anything but serious. Judas is an irreverent, erudite, and deviously funny narrator, and the book reflects his loquacious charm with ornate prose that is downright Nabokov-ian in its exuberance, abounds in clever wordplay, malapropisms, and dense descriptive passages. Describing a creek's annual transformation from a trickle to a shallow river, Judas unleashes a torrent of florid language that reflects the creek's power: "The sheet of water lay on the land for five or six weeks, reflecting so vast a swath of sky that, staring into it from one of the third-floor windows, you could get disoriented and think you were tumbling into Heaven's opened vault." But like Judas, the book also delights in testing the reader's patience for disgustingly detailed descriptions of filth. Describing a rest stop where he seeks out anonymous sex with other men, Judas describes a repulsive scene: "[Feces] was visible everywhere, from the floaters dissolving in tea-colored water to the tread marks on the cracked tile to the smears fingerpainted on the stall by someone who found himself without toilet paper or, who knows, just didn't want to use any." In juxtaposing pristine paeans to nature with such nauseating scenes, Peck creates a sense of how thin the line between beauty and depravity is.

A compelling novel about queer identity and the sins that continue to haunt the American project.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61695-780-3

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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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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NORMAL PEOPLE

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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