Necessary narratives, brilliantly crafted.

THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS

The author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2010) looks at loss, relationships, and race in America in short fiction and a novella.

A summary of the first story in this collection might go like this: Lyssa, a woman working in the gift shop of a Titanic-themed attraction, gets a small part in a music video. That covers the bare bones of the plot, but it offers no insight into what “Happily Ever After” is really about: It’s Lyssa losing her mother to cancer, and it’s how being Black shapes—and contorts—experiences in which race most likely seems irrelevant to people who aren’t Black. Most of the pieces in this volume have a similar shape. Regardless of what the story is ostensibly about, it’s also about race because there is no escaping or eliding race. Evans writes about injustices large and small with incredible subtlety and, often, wry wit. “Boys Go to Jupiter” is a standout, largely because it feels so timely. When a boy she’s hooking up with posts a photo of her wearing a Confederate-flag bikini on social media, Claire becomes a viral villain and a pariah at her small Vermont college. On the defensive, Claire goes from being clueless to willfully obtuse and ignorantly hurtful. Scenes from her past add depth and complexity while leaving the reader to decide how these revelations affect their understanding of this character. The eponymous novella that closes the book is a stunner. Cassie works at the Institute for Public History, a federal agency designed to address “the contemporary crisis of truth.” It’s her job to correct the historical record, whether that means correcting a tourist who’s getting their facts wrong or amending a bakery’s advertisement for a Juneteenth cake. When her boss asks her to look into the work of another field agent, Cassie steps back into her own past and into a murder mystery that might not involve a murder. To say much more would only detract from storytelling that is gripping on every level.

Necessary narratives, brilliantly crafted.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59448-733-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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