Pollock remains a singular stylist, but he has better books in him than this.

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THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

This debut novel occasionally flashes the promise that the author showed in his highly praised short-story collection, but falls short of fulfilling it.

The unflinching, often hilarious stories in Knockemstiff (2008) drew considerable attention to a writer whose own story was as fascinating as his fiction. A mill worker for three decades in blue-collar Ohio (where he sets his fiction), Pollock belatedly earned an MFA from Ohio State and published his collection of stories in which themes and characters were so interwoven that it might have passed as a novel. It was inevitable that his next book would be an actual novel, and billed as such, but this isn’t the total knockout that one might have expected. Instead, its various plot strands, which inevitably come together at the end, might have worked better as individual stories. Set again in rural, impoverished Knockemstiff and nearby Mead, the novel opens with the relationship of young Arvin Russell and his father, Willard, a haunted World War II vet who marries a beautiful woman and then watches her die from cancer. He alternates between praying and drinking, neither of which do much to alleviate his pain. In fact, his son “didn’t know which was worse, the drinking or the praying.” The tragic ways of the world (in a novel that sometimes aims at dark comedy) leave Arvin an orphan. As he’s maturing into young adulthood, raised by his grandmother, the plot shifts include a huckster pair of religious revivalists, a preacher who preys on young girls and a husband-and-wife pair of serial killers (she seduces their victims, whom they call “models,” and he photographs and kills them). Though there’s a hard-bitten realism to the character of Arvin, most of the rest seem like gothic noir redneck caricature (some with latent homosexual tendencies). A piece of cheap motel wall art could stand as the aesthetic credo: “It served no purpose that he could think of, other than to remind a person that the world was a sorry-ass place to be stuck living in.”

Pollock remains a singular stylist, but he has better books in him than this. 

Pub Date: July 12, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-385-53504-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2011

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Offill is good company for the end of the world.

WEATHER

An ever growing list of worries, from a brother with drug problems to a climate change apocalypse, dances through the lively mind of a university librarian.

In its clever and seductive replication of the inner monologue of a woman living in this particular moment in history, Offill’s (Dept. of Speculation, 2014, etc.) third novel might be thought of as a more laconic cousin of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. Here, the mind we’re embedded in is that of a librarian named Lizzie—an entertaining vantage point despite her concerns big and small. There’s the lady with the bullhorn who won’t let her walk her sensitive young son into his school building. Her brother, who has finally gotten off drugs and has a new girlfriend but still requires her constant, almost hourly, support. Her mentor, Sylvia, a national expert on climate change, who is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. (“These people long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” says Sylvia.) “Malodorous,” “Defacing,” “Combative,” “Humming,” “Lonely”: These are just a few of the categories in a pamphlet called Dealing With Problem Patrons that Lizzie's been given at work, Also, her knee hurts, and she’s spending a fortune on car service because she fears she's Mr. Jimmy’s only customer. Then there are the complex mixed messages of a cable show she can't stop watching: Extreme Shopper. Her husband, Ben, a video game designer and a very kind man, is getting a bit exasperated. As the new president is elected and the climate change questions pour in and the doomsday scenarios pile up, Lizzie tries to hold it together. The tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor.

Offill is good company for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-35110-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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