Black/bleak comedies of moral and spiritual breakdown.

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THE SECRET GOLDFISH

STORIES

Fifteen stories in a third collection by the prizewinning Means (Assorted Fire Events, 2000, etc.): tales set mostly in harsh northern areas of the Midwest among people the rest of us would rather avoid.

“Lightning Man” survives a series of lightning strikes that ritualize the stages of his life until he’s just another old man telling his story at the barber shop, at least until the next bolt hits. In “Sault Ste. Marie,” a petty thug who sees his life as little more than “a collection of raw sensations” commits casual acts of violence yet is drawn deeply into his lover’s tale of desecrated beauty. Similar lowlifes commit Clockwork Orange–like mayhem in “Hunger,” while the sexual predator in “Carnie” is creepy but more fleshed-out than the victim. In “Blown From the Bridge,” a young girl who may have been abused by her father dies in a car accident after refusing the safe harbor of her lover X’s bed. “X” is also the name of an older lover in “A Visit from Jesus,” but if he’s the same man he has aged badly; after a visitation from Jesus, this X’s much younger girlfriend finds his stash of child pornography and kills him. Is she driven by spiritual revelation? Drugs? Religious fervor churns just below the surface in many of these pieces, mixtures of Denis Johnson and Kafka. After a farmer digs up a bog man, “Elyria Man,” in his field, both turn out to have secrets. “Michigan Death Trap” is basically a catalogue of bizarre deaths. But a few of the tales, notably “Counterparts,” “Petrouchka With Omissions,” and the title story, which is told through the eyes of the family pet, are middle-class in orientation and focus on marital infidelity instead of violence. Though less flashy, they cut at least as close to the bone as Means’s more obvious tours de force.

Black/bleak comedies of moral and spiritual breakdown.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2004

ISBN: 0-00-716489-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2004

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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