IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER

A romp—a grand Calvino-style romp, complete with a fun-house tilt, a high-gloss (but consistently good-humored) elegance, and a big, telescoping, central conceit. This is a book about reading books, about the shivery comedy of that act. Urged to shut off the TV, remove shoes, and lie back, the reader is then introduced to a Chirico-esque railroad-station scene in which "the lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of indicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog." In this story, a traveler is supposed to meet someone, exchange something. . . and then suddenly Calvino's beginning has been succeeded by the opening of a wholly other and different novel: Outside the town of Malbork, written by a Pole! What's going on? A mistake in binding, it turns out. And when the Reader (now enrolled as a full-fledged, understandably puzzled character) goes to his bookstore to exchange copies, he meets there a woman, Ludmilla, whose copy of the Traveler novel was similarly frustrated by faulty binding. But inside the new copies they receive is yet another novel: one in a dead language called Cimmerian and titled Leaning from the steep slope—which Ludmilla's professor at the university is an expert on. (Marxist students there dispute him, however, claiming that the book is actually one called Looks down in gathering shadow.) And so on—through the starts of ten different novels, each parodied style overruling the previous one: existential; rustic; political; murder mystery; psycho-perverse; revolutionary; German; Japanese, Russian; South American. Yes, Calvino is toying with the discontinuities of literature here—and his wildest creation is the figure of a shadowy young translator who goes around the world writing novels and substituting them for other ones in languages few know well enough to call him on: "a literature made entirely of apocrypha, of false attributions, of imitations and counterfeits and pastiches." The issues addressed are important ones: the whole sincerity/ artifice issue in modern literature, as well as the "erotics" of reading, the sham mysteries, the question of authorlessness. The satire is frequently that of an editor (Calvino's longtime occupation in Italy). And the philosophy—seriously visionary yet light as clear broth—is that of a working writer. True, about halfway through the concept knots itself up a little densely. But it pulls out straight thereafter—and in all this is a delightful, never too-coy book (yet very Italian and mischievously gestural), a dandy trick done with mirrors that are all but smudgeless.

Pub Date: May 21, 1981

ISBN: 0679420258

Page Count: 254

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1981

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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