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THE LAST GREAT ROAD BUM

Though the protagonist will test your patience with his road stories, he has some great ones.

A white Midwestern boy’s wanderlust sends him on an unlikely path around the world and deep into the Salvadoran revolution.

Tobar’s third novel is based on the true story of Joe Sanderson, who was, among other things, a failed writer; his overheated prose, appearing in letters home and rejected novels, is quoted often. But his copious journals and letters also provide a narrative throughline for this shaggy dog epic. Tobar stumbled upon Sanderson’s diary in El Salvador in 2008, and the author is plainly charmed by the story of an all-American gringo who gave up a comfortable upbringing to see the world. Born and raised in Urbana, Illinois, Joe caught the travel bug early, exploring nontourist pockets of Jamaica as a teen on a family vacation. After brief college and Army stints, he bummed rides through Central and South America, the Middle East, and Asia, witnessing the escalating Vietnam War and the famine in Biafra. Tobar renders Joe as naïve and dispassionate early on, a young man eagerly gathering fodder for his bad novels but not gaining much empathy. And though Tobar is a gifted storyteller in both fiction (The Barbarian Nurseries, 2011) and nonfiction (Deep Down Dark, 2014), his hero’s lack of emotional growth makes much of the heart of the novel draggy and listless. (Joe occasionally interrupts the narrative via footnotes in which he speaks directly to the reader, mentioning that Tobar’s editor and agent recommended he “trim the shit out of” the novel. True or not, it’s not bad advice.) The novel gains thrust and becomes more affecting in its final third, when Joe joins the anti-government revolutionaries in El Salvador in the late 1970s and early '80s; Tobar’s depiction of the 1981 El Mozote massacre is chilling and imagines a genuine shift in Joe’s character.

Though the protagonist will test your patience with his road stories, he has some great ones.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-18342-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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TENDER IS THE FLESH

An unrelentingly dark and disquieting look at the way societies conform to committing atrocities.

A processing plant manager struggles with the grim realities of a society where cannibalism is the new normal.

Marcos Tejo is the boss’s son. Once, that meant taking over his father’s meat plant when the older man began to suffer from dementia and require nursing home care. But ever since the Transition, when animals became infected with a virus fatal to humans and had to be destroyed, society has been clamoring for a new source of meat, laboring under the belief, reinforced by media and government messaging, that plant proteins would result in malnutrition and ill effects. Now, as is true across the country, Marcos’ slaughterhouse deals in “special meat”—human beings. Though Marcos understands the moral horror of his job supervising the workers who stun, kill, flay, and butcher other humans, he doesn’t feel much since the crib death of his infant son. “One can get used to almost anything,” he muses, “except for the death of a child.” One day, the head of a breeding center sends Marcos a gift: an adult female FGP, a “First Generation Pure,” born and bred in captivity. As Marcos lives with his product, he gradually begins to awaken to the trauma of his past and the nightmare of his present. This is Bazterrica’s first novel to appear in America, though she is widely published in her native Argentina, and it could have been inelegant, using shock value to get across ideas about the inherent brutality of factory farming and the cruelty of governments and societies willing to sacrifice their citizenry for power and money. It is a testament to Bazterrica’s skill that such a bleak book can also be a page-turner.

An unrelentingly dark and disquieting look at the way societies conform to committing atrocities.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982150-92-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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BROOKLYN

A fine and touching novel, persuasive proof of Tóibín’s ever-increasing skills and range.

This plaintive sixth novel from the Booker-nominated Irish author (Mothers and Sons, 2008, etc.) is both akin to his earlier fiction and a somewhat surprising hybrid.

Tóibín’s treatment of the early adulthood of Eilis Lacey, a quiet girl from the town of Enniscorthy who accepts a kindly priest’s sponsorship to work and live in America, is characterized by a scrupulously precise domestic realism reminiscent of the sentimental bestsellers of Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber and Betty Smith (in her beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). But as Eilis both falters and matures abroad, something more interesting takes shape. Tóibín fashions a compelling characterization of a woman caught between two worlds, unsure almost until the novel’s final page where her obligations and affections truly reside. Several deft episodes and set pieces bring Eilis to convincing life: her timid acts of submission, while still living at home, to her extroverted, vibrant older sister Rose; the ordeal of third-class passenger status aboard ship (surely seasickness has never been presented more graphically); her second-class status among postwar Brooklyn’s roiling motley populace, and at the women’s boarding house where she’s virtually a non-person; and the exuberant liberation sparked by her romance with handsome plumber Tony Fiorello, whose colorful family contrasts brashly with Eilis’s own dour and scattered one. Tóibín is adept at suggestive understatement, best displayed in lucid portrayals of cultural interaction and conflict in a fledgling America still defining itself; and notably in a beautiful account of Eilis’s first sexual experience with Tony (whom she’ll soon wed), revealed as the act of a girl who knows she must fully become a woman in order to shoulder the burdens descending on her. And descend they do, as a grievous family loss reshapes Eilis’s future (literally) again and again.

A fine and touching novel, persuasive proof of Tóibín’s ever-increasing skills and range.

Pub Date: May 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4391-3831-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2009

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