BECH IS BACK

A NOVEL

Updike grows steadily more dazzling. After all, how many other contemporary novelists have had the artistic suppleness to launch two such different series of character-based books and allow them to do so much? (If Rabbit is a tennis-shoed archbishop of the American middle, Bech is Updike's pulchinello, his writer-as-sad-clown, a Mosaic itinerant.) Yet both characters feed off the same basic freedom: not failure exactly, but resonated disappointment. Henry Bech, you'll remember, is Updike's prototypical writer: New-York-Jewish, naturally—and a big splash that's now dried-out. (He's the winner of the Melville Award, "awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence.") So, stalled on his work-in-progress, Think Big, Bech scrambles. Signing limited-edition reprint pages of an earlier novel, each scrawl worth a buck-and-a-half and a free vacation in the Caribbean, he enters the nightmare of having his very name dismantle under his hand. When he travels on State Department tours to the Third World, his alkaline talks and the student demonstrations against him lead him to be "sorry he had ever said anything, on anything, ever. He had meddled with the mystery of creation. There was in the world a pain concerning which God has set an example of pure and absolute silence." He marries his WASP lover Bea, who gets him to move up to Westchester, to travel to Israel (where, to great comic effect, she's more enthusiastic than he is) and to Scotland (where Updike indulges in piquant travel-writing with sparkling economy). And they finally settle in, in Ossining-where the goyim terrify Bech as exotics, "so brittle and pale and complacently situated amid their pools and dogwoods and the old Dutch masonry of their retaining walls, that he felt like a spy among them and, when not a silent spy, a too-vigorous, curly-haired showoff." At last, then, Bech writes: he finishes Think Big (which seems wonderful/dreadful in Updike's clever outline), earns a bundle, winds up as just another celebrity . . . and ultimately abandons the let-down Bea. ("I just thought . . . your living here so long with me, with us, something nice would get into your book. But those people are so vicious, Henry. There's no love making them tick, just ego and greed. Is that how you see us? I mean us, people?") Schlemeil humor at its ventriloquistic best, fine travel observations, literary acid—all splendid. But Updike's newest Bech-book moves past the satiric pinpricks of the first volume and into a personification of moral compromise—sure to make any writer squirm in recognition, sure to reward any reader. Like a delicious sundae that turns out to be whipped up out of vitamins and minerals: brilliant fiction, great fun.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 1982

ISBN: 0449004538

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1982

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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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