LIZARD WINE

Supertaut storytelling, after a dandy start, wanders off into pat implications of psychological trauma as the explanation for life's evils. Sometime horror writer Engstrom (Nightmare Flower, 1992, etc.) opts this time out for suspense and makes an avidly Hitchcockian discovery in the process—that miles of narrative can by gained in claustrophobic settings. The three female leads here—Elsie, Rebecca, and Tulie, all coeds at the University of Oregon—and the three male—Buck, Niles, and Songster, hobo neighbors and coworkers on the same housepainting crew—spend most of their time in cars. Elsie's bright idea is to get the girls dolled up in strumpety garb and descend on a cowboy bar, there to garner some extra cash with their feminine wiles. Rebecca, a Mormon, goes right along; but out of frustration Tulie, a recovering lesbian, abandons her two friends when Elsie's Camero stalls in a snowstorm. Enter the three stooges, who've decided to go camping in Buck's station wagon. Elsie and Rebecca continue on to the bar, while Tulie, in an effort to prove she's not a dyke, winds up staying with the hobo trio, even having tequila-soaked sex with the psychotic Songster. Things will get increasingly harrowing in Buck's car (the consensus is that the Songster killed a woman and disposed of her body) as Elsie, at the bar, unsuccessfully practices the world's oldest profession and Rebecca connects with a pimply cowhand—it's with him and his burly, rapist friend that Elsie and Rebecca end up. When Elsie shoots her assailant dead, the two girls flee back over the mountain, where they find Tulie in the throes of a violent struggle to keep three men from killing her before they kill each other. Lacing her story with retrospective vignettes of broken families and poor-as-dirt poverty, Engstrom tries to keep things swift and scary, but, even given the psychosocial background, none of the final tragedy really seems earned.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-385-31249-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Delta

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1995

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

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A LITTLE LIFE

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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A kind of Holden Caulfield who speaks bravely and winningly from inside the sorrows of autism: wonderful, simple, easy,...

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME

Britisher Haddon debuts in the adult novel with the bittersweet tale of a 15-year-old autistic who’s also a math genius.

Christopher Boone has had some bad knocks: his mother has died (well, she went to the hospital and never came back), and soon after he found a neighbor’s dog on the front lawn, slain by a garden fork stuck through it. A teacher said that he should write something that he “would like to read himself”—and so he embarks on this book, a murder mystery that will reveal who killed Mrs. Shears’s dog. First off, though, is a night in jail for hitting the policeman who questions him about the dog (the cop made the mistake of grabbing the boy by the arm when he can’t stand to be touched—any more than he can stand the colors yellow or brown, or not knowing what’s going to happen next). Christopher’s father bails him out but forbids his doing any more “detecting” about the dog-murder. When Christopher disobeys (and writes about it in his book), a fight ensues and his father confiscates the book. In time, detective-Christopher finds it, along with certain other clues that reveal a very great deal indeed about his mother’s “death,” his father’s own part in it—and the murder of the dog. Calming himself by doing roots, cubes, prime numbers, and math problems in his head, Christopher runs away, braves a train-ride to London, and finds—his mother. How can this be? Read and see. Neither parent, if truth be told, is the least bit prepossessing or more than a cutout. Christopher, though, with pet rat Toby in his pocket and advanced “maths” in his head, is another matter indeed, and readers will cheer when, way precociously, he takes his A-level maths and does brilliantly.

A kind of Holden Caulfield who speaks bravely and winningly from inside the sorrows of autism: wonderful, simple, easy, moving, and likely to be a smash.

Pub Date: June 17, 2003

ISBN: 0-385-50945-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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