A moving tale of an immigrant child’s trials.

BLOOD PUDDING

CONFESSIONS OF AN IMMIGRANT BOY PITTSBURGH 1920

In this historical novel, a young Polish immigrant in Pennsylvania struggles under the mercurial despotism of his father.

In 1911, Tadeusz Malinowski—everyone calls him Taddy or Tad—moves with his family from Poland to the United States when he is only 8 weeks old. They settle in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, led inconstantly by Tad’s father, Ignaz, or Jumbo as he is often called, who dishonestly insists that he has a royal bloodline. Of all the siblings, Tad is the favorite of his mother, Eva—he is a sweet boy who diligently looks after his older brother, Ziggy, who is mentally disabled, dismissively counted to be among the “low IQ unfortunates.” The entire family suffers under Jumbo’s delusions of grandeur and infantile spirit—he is talented and enterprising but also viciously violent and selfish. When he falls into financial arrears, he takes to alcohol—for a time, he’s a bootlegger who largely supplies himself with booze—and routinely beats Eva, who fecklessly tries to hide her bruises from the children. When Eva dies—Tad, the narrator of the story, is only 10 at the time—Jumbo only worsens his tyrannical grip over the family, sexually abusing his own daughter, Vera. Tad is haunted by guilt over his mother’s death—he furtively helped her perform an abortion on herself, a gruesome procedure that ended her life, chillingly described by Cox. Eva tells Tad she needs help discarding some blood pudding: “What I dumped into the hole was not blood pudding. It was bloody, all right, but it looked like a little lifeless red and purple tadpole. At one end, it had some little purple fins coming out from it. It had a long vein wrapped around it that ended in a soft, lumpy pool of black clots.” In heartbreakingly poignant terms, Tad relates his struggle to love his father, a complicated man who by turns invites admiration and contempt: “My love for Jumbo is a bitter task of loyalty.”

The author’s plot can take on a desultory, meandering quality—it often reads like a series of impressionist recollections rather than a tightly structured story. But a sense of thematic unity begins to slowly emerge, accompanied by a thoughtful reflection on the very nature of remembrance. Tad muses about his mother: “My dreams are different from my memories, which are gleaned through this unquenchable urge to dig into the past. This compulsion began abruptly with her death and continued relentlessly for many years. Regrettably, this process exposed me again and again to the pain, but it always seemed worth it. I could not stop it.” The novel often intentionally feels like a memoir—Cox’s literacy conceit is that the book is found years later by Tad’s son, not to be read until a century after Eva’s death. The author’s storytelling can be punishingly gritty—one particular scene in which Tad is brutally raped by an adult is as difficult to read as it is to forget. Fortunately, there is more to this tale than despair and woes—there is plenty of humor as well as hope to lighten readers’ loads.

A moving tale of an immigrant child’s trials.

Pub Date: April 19, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-63985-561-2

Page Count: 374

Publisher: Fulton Books

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2022

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Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

LUCY BY THE SEA

Lucy Barton flees pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine with ex-husband William.

This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic: her newfound closeness with William; his unfaithfulness when they were married; their two daughters’ marital and health issues; her growing friendship with Bob Burgess; the surprise reappearance of William’s half sister, Lois; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood, troubled relations with her parents, and ongoing difficulties with her sister, Vicky. To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment.

Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-44606-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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