Means' first novel is a compelling portrait of an imagined counterhistory that feels entirely real.


In an alternative universe, John F. Kennedy was not killed in Dealey Plaza, but America is riven by Vietnam nonetheless.

Means has made a career writing deeply rendered short fiction: four collections, including The Spot (2010) and Assorted Fire Events (2000). His work is precise, relentless, unsentimental, an art of missed opportunities and missed connections, tracing, more than anything, the inevitability of loss. These same themes mark his first novel but in a manner we haven’t seen before. It’s not just the difference between long and short, although one of the pleasures of this dark and complex work is to see Means stretch out. Even more, however, it’s the novel’s manic energy, its mix of realism and satire, set in an alternative universe where Kennedy survived Dallas (and several other attempts on his life) to become a public martyr–in-the-making, “driving around in an open limo, with Jackie at his side, doing the hand-wave, the little movement, half-hearted, just a flick of the wrist, all slo-mo, the way the motorcade moved.” Kennedy is an ambiguous figure, architect of a failed Vietnam strategy that has led him to create the Psych Corps, a federal bureaucracy dedicated to wiping out the memories of returning veterans. The novel involves two such vets: Rake, who embarked on a Charlie Starkweather–type killing spree with his young girlfriend, and Singleton, an agent who must track the killer down. That’s the traditional part of the story, but this is not a traditional narrative. Rather, it offers a mélange of reference points—Starkweather, John Kennedy Toole (the novel is constructed as a book within a book, written by a suicide), and even, with its editor’s notes and contextual material, Nabokov—set in a world that has unraveled in its own apocalyptic way. One unintended irony is the role of Flint, Michigan, devastated by fire and environmental degradation, where part of the novel is set. But Means is less interested here in where we are going than where we have been. “Don’t accuse the kid of bending history,” he insists. “Accuse history of bending the kid. And the war, the war bent him, too. Like so many, he came back changed.”

Means' first novel is a compelling portrait of an imagined counterhistory that feels entirely real.

Pub Date: April 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-86547-913-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2016

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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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