BLUESTOWN

A marvelous first novel about growing up confused and trying to adjust to the imperfections of people who are supposed to know better (like your parents), from the author of the story collection Dangerous Men (1995—not reviewed). This is the story, told in his own ruefully funny voice, of Spencer Markus, a disconnected young Brooklynite whose adult life seems compounded of romantic disappointment, job insecurity, and variously addled relations with his vagrant father ``Spider,'' an itinerant rock-and-roll musician (a.k.a. ``Spiderman Dan'') who weaves unannounced and unpredictably in and out of Spencer's life. Becker's beautifully controlled plot gets off to a fast start with Spencer remembering a trip he almost took with his father to Canada, then noodles along agreeably chronicling this unheroic hero's misadventures working as a Customer Service rep for a blandly dishonest musical ``effects'' business (Mutronics), his injury during a peculiar outbreak of labor-union violence, and his rocky reunion with an old high-school girlfriend and her deeply neurotic dog Toby. Everybody here (including Toby) has a vividly distinctive personality, and Becker keeps coming up with amusing particulars. Spencer's patient correspondence with Mutronics' outraged customers (i.e., victims) is hilarious—and is skillfully used to nudge the novel toward its surprising, and moving, conclusion. Among the tale's irresistible details are a thumbnail portrait of Spencer's distracted grandmother (whose ``frequent conversations with her late husband . . . left the rest of us sitting in polite silence''), a baby's crib ingeniously fashioned from a speaker cabinet, and a band made up of law students calling itself the Pop Torts. Best of all, there's the characterization of Spencer's well-meaning, terminally screwed-up father, whose message to his kid memorably resounds over his, and the novel's, salutary craziness: ``Sometimes you have to take things to the extreme. . . . Out on the edges . . . that's where the good stuff is.'' A superlative debut, from a writer of very great promise. (Author tour)

Pub Date: May 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-312-14223-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1996

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...

FLY AWAY

Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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