UNLAWFUL DISORDER

A startling and rewarding story of pain and alienation.

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In Ambrose’s novel, a Black gay man with bipolar disorder navigates a mental health system and financial troubles.

One day in 2010, in Norristown, Pennsylvania,Bowie Long, still dressed in his pajamas, went to visit his mother at work at the county administration building with the intention of asking her for his check from Social Security; then, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, he tried to kill her. Now he’s in a state mental facility, where he’s never been before:“The state hospital was the place of last resort. The place for the true loons. Or those that didn’t have insurance to pay for anything else. There were no perks here.” The 32-year-old Bowie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder years ago and has long heard voices in his head. He’s soon let out of the hospital, but this just puts him back into his chaotic home life. He and his mother, Magdelene—who quickly forgives him for trying to murder her—are both gambling addicts, and often spending their scant money on the slots at the local casino. Bowie isn’t above doing sex work here and there to make a couple extra bucks, as well. At home, though, his mother berates him constantly and makes him uncomfortable by frequently being naked in his presence. The only bright spot in his life is his sometime-lover, Eden, a compassionate man who desperately tries to save Bowie from bad choices. As Bowie navigates the mental health and legal systems during one crisis after another, Eden attempts to help him deal with a childhood trauma that might be contributing to his problems—but, Bowie wonders, is he simply too far gone to ever lead a normal life?

Over the course of this novel, Ambrose shows himself to be a terrific writer on the sentence level, capturing Bowie’s claustrophobic, paranoid existence in a way that will keep readers on their toes, as when Bowie rages against his keepers at the state hospital: “After the tenth hour, he did what it seemed they had been waiting for. He leaped up, screaming, and threw a chair. They descended like night, pinioning him beneath their weight, ignoring his outbursts, his demands to go home.” Bowie is a memorable protagonist, and Ambrose elegantly brings this sympathetic and deeply troubled man to life. Magdalene is a brilliant villain, whom the author portrays as just as psychologically complex as her son. The novel is a bit too long at nearly 400 pages, as the ups and downs become a bit repetitive over the course of the work. However, it remains a breathless read, effectively capturing the messiness of mental health and the maddening bureaucracy of the system in place to treat mental illness. It also demonstrates how traumas and living conditions can exacerbate one another, keeping a person trapped in a cycle of ill health and poverty. Overall, it’s a story that truly fixes the reader in the chaos of another person’s mind.

A startling and rewarding story of pain and alienation.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-938841-97-2

Page Count: 380

Publisher: Jaded Ibis Press

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2022

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

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

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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 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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