The canned southern whimsy is rather self-consciously cute and provides gags rather than character development.

WORK SHIRTS FOR MADMEN

A nominally comic novel in which a Southern artist contends with his wife, his drinking, his buddies and his out-of-control life.

Sculptor Harp Spillman has been so far inside the bourbon bottle that when word comes to him he’s won a commission from Birmingham, Ala., to construct a dozen 12-foot metal angels out of nuts and bolts, he can’t remember having even applied. It turns out that he hadn’t. His wife, Raylou, applied on Harp’s behalf, believing that a healthy artistic focus—and the promise of a healthy paycheck—would help him quit drinking, at least temporarily. Raylou is a craftsman who, as narrator Harp informs us, makes “goofball face jugs” whose popularity defies rational scrutiny. “Goofball” is not a bad description of the novel as a whole, for the narrative begins with Raylou rescuing snapping turtles from a biotoxicologist. We also find out that Harp’s reputation as a sculptor is on the skids because ice sculptures he cunningly crafted for a Republican fundraiser revealed other images as they melted: a Grand Wizard under the sculpture of Jesse Helms, Mussolini under Strom Thurmond and Lucifer under Charlton Heston. Harp tries to straighten himself out through the 12-step program of Carolina Behavior but resists much of the way. Singleton sets up a series of comic plot contrivances—for example, it turns out that Frank and Joe’s metalwork business has been split up into Joe’s Nuts and Frank’s Bolts—but they don’t add up to much. This is the kind of novel in which the narrator eats Mallo Cups, Hershey Kisses and Little Debbie cakes and washes them all down with Yoo-hoo, and characters play Drunken Jeopardy, whose categories include moonshine, famous characters from Tennessee (“Jim Beam”) and whiskies with a wild-animal theme (“Old Crow,” “Wild Turkey”).

The canned southern whimsy is rather self-consciously cute and provides gags rather than character development.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-15-101307-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

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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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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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