LETTERS

Straight from the ivory tower—here's the ultimate, unreadable academic novel, and, sadly, the fiercest ammunition imaginable for John Gardner's self-righteous "moral fiction" crusade. In a grand gesture of self-advertisement and apparent desperation, Barth has taken characters from five of his six previous books—Todd Andrews from The Floating Opera, Jacob Homer from The End of the Road, Adolph Mensch from Lost in the Funhouse, Jerome (Harold) Bray from Giles Goat-Boy, various descendants of Ebenezer Cooke (The Sot-Weed Factor)—and he has them all writing letters in 1969: aging Todd writes to his dead father about the recurring patterns of his life and his rediscovery of sex with old flame Jane Mack and (probably incest) Jane's daughter Jeannine; Jacob Homer writes to himself in the loony bin, obsessed with numbers, anniversaries, and his tragic past; Bray and his LILYVAC II continue to pursue fiction-by-computer and write John Barth to threaten him with a plagiarism suit over Giles Goat-Boy; Adolph Mensch outlines his plan for a Perseus fiction; and the various Cookes chronicle the family history from about 1750 to 1820, which takes in Teeumseh, Byron, Madame de Stael, Fulton, the Burning of Washington, the Battle of New Orleans, and a plan to rescue Napoleon from Elba. But the biggest letter-writer of all is a new character, 50-year-old Germaine G. Pitt (Lady Amherst)—acting provost of Marshyhope State University, long-ago mistress to Joyce, Huxley, and Hesse ("he liked me to dress in lederhosen"), now the lustily Joycean mistress of Adolph Mensch, and related in one precious way or another to all the other characters. Plus: Barth himself writes to all these folks, asking their permission to put them in his new book, promising that, through these 88 letters and 864 pages, "Their several narratives will become one; like waves of a rising tide, the plot will surge forward. . . ." Unfortunately, that's not what happens, despite a highly contrived effort to connect these characters and bring them together for some campus/radical/terrorist hoopla. Nor do Barth's much-proclaimed themes here—life's second cycles, history's "reenactments"—hold things together; and the comedy/parody is more often strained than wild, especially since such literary gamesplaying is by now old stuff (Borges, Nabokov) that's been improved upon by Barthelme, Sorrentino, and even Woody Allen. What remains is a self-indulgent mishmash that not only fails but also puts an odd retroactive taint on the earlier novels: by shoving his past conceits up against each other, Barth reveals just how frail they all are—and that his various voices, whatever the ornate embellishments, are essentially just one wordy, arch, allusive voice. For Barth's fellow academics, then: an elaborate playpen to crawl around in. For those who know and love all of the earlier novels—some possible amusement. For most everyone else—a sorry spectacle, baroque and listless, noisy and busy and smug and empty.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 1979

ISBN: 1564780619

Page Count: -

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979

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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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