WHITE NOISE

DeLillo, whose recent taste for fashionable conspiracy and political/philosophical statement has detracted from his eloquent gifts, is back in top form here: sections of this new novel harken back to his best, early, most generous work—and also extend themselves further into regions of dark domestic poetry and fearful pity. The family of Jack Gladney, an insecure academic chairing the Department of Hitler Studies at a small college, is made up of the progeny of both Jack's and wife Babette's previous marriages. In this step-family, then, Jack is happy: "Heat, noise, lights, looks, words, gestures, personalities, appliances. A colloquial density that makes family life the one medium of sense knowledge in which astonishment of heart is routinely contained." True, Jack's professional life is kitschy, in a college that also has a whole department of "American environments"—staffed by fast-talking exiles from New York City, focusing on Elvis, car crashes, UFOs, and generic foods. But his private life with Babette is blissful—clouded only by their mutual fear of it ending: who'll be the first to die, to interrupt the happiness? Then, however, about halfway through the book, there's a catastrophe, an "airborne toxic event," a chemical spill that necessitates evacuation of the college town; during the exodus Jack is momentarily exposed to the noxious air when he gets out to re-fuel the family car, an exposure which will later doom him to a premature death. And though the chemical cloud disperses, the now-strengthened fear of death—the title's "white noise"—continues to paralyze Jack and Babette both: she goes so far as to submit to sexual blackmail, to guinea-pig herself in experiments for an anti-death-anxiety drug called Dylar; Jack takes jealous revenge upon the mad scientist pushing the pills. . . while yearning desperately for the pills at the same time. True, the novel goes wrong here—opting for flashy paranoia and sci-fi, relinquishing the naturalness of the family scenes, the evocation of loneliness before death, the apocalyptic clarities of the evacuation after the spill. In the main, though, DeLillo's most human instincts prevail in this book, resulting in a wealth of lyrical, touching, and terrifying scenes: the family eating fried chicken together in their car; a visit by Babette's broken-down father; and, most indelibly, the descriptions of the "black billowing cloud, the airborne toxic event, lighted by the clear beams of seven army helicopters. They were tracking its windborne movement, keeping it in view"—to the awe of those below in cars and on foot. DeLillo turns a TV-movie disaster scenario into a new Book of Revelations in these pages: a very disturbing, very impressive achievement.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1984

ISBN: 0140077022

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 22, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1984

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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