Fans of Günter Grass will find Keun a kindred spirit in the meeting of the picaresque and the cynical.

FERDINAND, THE MAN WITH THE KIND HEART

Satirical novel of postwar Germany, written in 1950 by a writer little known outside her native country.

Ferdinand Timpe is a “returnee,” a Wehrmacht veteran who lives in a Cologne hovel. He doesn’t like the designation: “It sounds a bit like the name of a vacuum cleaner or something,” he grumbles. He wasn’t much of a soldier, he allows, though he keeps running into old comrades, such as a sergeant who saved his life but then bored him with “the stupidest and nastiest jokes I’ve ever heard in my life.” In a Germany divided in a Cold War world “ajangle with weaponry,” a shopkeeper opines that because the Americans won, they must really be Germans, since the Germans are supposed to win in any martial encounter. That’s just one example of the strange logic Ferdinand meets with, his neighbors filled with superstition, glad to spend freely on things occult while awaiting the world’s end; one of Ferdinand’s employers is a neighbor who “now has departments for podiatry, charms, talismans and scents, departments for magical cloth, for clairvoyance and crystallography and the interpretation of dreams, departments for color, astrology, chiromancy, and graphology.” Ferdinand would prefer to drink, smoke, and wander the streets dressed in a homemade jerkin, which his bohemian cousin Johanna says makes him “look like a hurdy-gurdy man’s monkey.” He lacks all ambition, evident when, in a case of mistaken identity, he’s commissioned to write an article for a new magazine, requiring him to think, fruitlessly, of a subject (“I was Hitler’s pest control guy” is one idea quickly discarded). His family, as we learn episode by episode leading up to a reunion, is just as confused, and so is everyone else. Keun, banned during the Nazi era and all but forgotten afterward, paints with a broad brush, but it’s a decidedly unusual and often quite funny picture of a defeated people about to dust themselves off and become an economic power.

Fans of Günter Grass will find Keun a kindred spirit in the meeting of the picaresque and the cynical.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2020

ISBN: 978-163542-035-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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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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