TEETH OF THE DOG

There will always be innocents wandering about in the worst places abroad, and most of them will always be Americans, like the two described here by Ciment (The Law of Falling Bodies, 1993). The Melanesian island of Vanduu is about as far off the map as you can fall. Dropped somewhere in between the Philippines and Indonesia, it’s primitive, remote, and not exactly part of the tourist circuit. Blessed with beautiful beaches, a tropical climate, a mishmash of competing religions, and a pre-modern culture, it could offer a good holiday to a sybaritic anthropologist, however, and that probably explains why Thomas Strauss is there. A renowned American scholar of erotic rituals, Thomas visits Vanduu with his wife, Helene. Nearly 30 years his junior, Helene’s an ex-stripper who became Thomas’s guide to the sexual netherworlds he wrote about before marrying her. In Vanduu, they meet Adam Finster, an American expatriate who makes a living selling love potions—pheronome perfumes—to the locals. Adam tries to show Thomas and Helene the “real” Vanduu, but after he seduces the sexually starved Helene, she flees him and goes off with Thomas on their own. This proves to be a big mistake when Thomas kills a native boy in a car accident and later dies of a heart attack, leaving Helene to face the prospect of a manslaughter trial on her own. Unwilling to subject herself to the vagaries of Vanduuan justice, she turns fugitive and tries to flee the country secretly. To succeed, she needs the help of someone steeped in the local customs, and she knows no one in Vanduu but Adam. Can he be trusted to get her out of this mess? Somewhat formulaic and too self-consciously rough (—He cupped her breast like a man cups a handful of cherished water—). But a good read—told with real style in the best Graham Greene manner.

Pub Date: March 31, 1999

ISBN: 0-517-70202-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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