The novel and the short story each aspire to a different kind of perfection. We think no less of Alice Munro because she...

READ REVIEW

AWAIT YOUR REPLY

A sprinter who excels at the 100-yard dash may never attempt a marathon. A poet who composes haiku might not be able to sustain an epic. Though writers of short stories are almost invariably encouraged to become novelists—a contract for a debut story collection is typically a bet hedged against the longer work to come—some authors who master the former don’t seem as well suited to the latter. Maybe it’s a question of scope, or even artistic stamina, but the novel requires a different mindset. It isn’t just a longer story.

Ohio’s Dan Chaon, whose two collections established him as one of America’s most promising short story writers, returns this fall with a second novel, Await Your Reply, easily his most ambitious work to date. As in his stories and previous novel (You Remind Me of Me, 2004), this book focuses on family dynamics, the quest for identity and the essence of the Heartland—in some ways, Chaon is to the Midwest what Richard Russo is to the Northeast—but the structure has an innovative audacity missing from his earlier, more straightforward work. The novel initially seems to be three separate narratives, presented in round-robin fashion, connected only by some plot similarities (characters on a quest or on the lam, a tragic loss of parents) and thematic underpinnings (the chimera of identity). One narrative concerns a college dropout who learns that the man he thought was his uncle is really his father, who recruits him for some criminal activity involving identity theft. The second involves an orphan who runs away with her high-school history teacher. The third features a twin in his 30s in search of his brother, likely a paranoid schizophrenic who occasionally sends messages yet refuses to be found. It’s a tribute to Chaon’s narrative command that each of these parallel narratives sustains the reader’s interest, even though there’s little indication through two-thirds of the novel that these stories will ever intersect. And when they do, the results are so breathtaking in their inevitability that the reader practically feels compelled to start the novel anew, just to discover the cues that he’s missed along the way.

The novel and the short story each aspire to a different kind of perfection. We think no less of Alice Munro because she reigns supreme in the shorter form (though her short stories are longer than most). We continue to hail William Trevor and Lorrie Moore primarily for the exquisiteness of their stories, though both have attempted novels as well (shorter than many). More recently, Donald Ray Pollock’s hard-hitting Knockemstiff, a debut collection of interrelated stories, could have easily been marketed as a novel. And Aleksander Hemon’s return to stories with Love and Obstacles could pass as a follow-up novel to his brilliant The Lazarus Project. With Chaon, one senses that there’s no going back. His stories established his early reputation. He did that. Now he’s doing this.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-345-47602-9

Page Count: 328

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2009

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

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

Did you like this book?

more