A novel about a life spent surrounded by books, heavily influenced by the grimy realism of a poet’s life and work.

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Shadowboxing With Bukowski

A man works to keep his California bookstore afloat while meditating on his relationship with Charles Bukowski. 

Kastin (The Conjurer and Other Azorean Tales, 2012, etc.) returns with a novel about a West Coast bookseller. When bibliophile Nick Kastinovich gets married, his father, disappointed in his son’s life so far, lets him run the Little Big Bookstore, hoping that the small business will teach Nick a sense of responsibility. Nick settles into his new home and profession in San Pedro, home to poet Bukowski, who happens to frequent the restaurant across from the bookstore. The two build a polite familiarity, but San Pedro proves inhospitable to the book business. Try as he might, Nick can’t seem to jump-start the Little Big Bookstore, and his life begins to deteriorate as a result. He fights off creditors as he continues to buy books, and his marriage turns cold as he fantasizes about a beautiful customer named Katherine. Woven together, these threads form the novel’s central plot. Unsurprisingly, however, Bukowski is just as important as Nick. Less an active force than a constant influence, the poet, his work, and his occasional benevolence toward the bookstore prompt the protagonist’s reflections on life and literature. Bukowski is also a primary literary influence for Kastin. Presumably, Nick Kastinovich is Kastin’s version of Hank Chinaski (Bukowski’s literary alter ego), and sentences like “the bookstore, San Pedro, all was just as corrupt, all of it rotting from the inside” evoke the poet’s gritty nihilism. Sometimes, this makes Kastin’s prose feel derivative, but more often it feels like a successful homage. Indeed, much of the book honors Nick’s/Kastin’s literary heroes: Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, and most of all John Fante (particularly Ask the Dust). Kastin believes wholeheartedly in Nick’s mission “to uncover great poets and essayists, playwrights and historians, and to share these discoveries with others, to keep these writers from fading into oblivion.” This sincere devotion should speak to any reader but especially to booksellers, who will likely recognize themselves in the protagonist’s challenges and love of literature.

A novel about a life spent surrounded by books, heavily influenced by the grimy realism of a poet’s life and work.

Pub Date: May 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-942515-37-1

Page Count: 251

Publisher: Fomite

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016

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

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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

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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