RABBIT AT REST

A NOVEL

Updike finishes up his Rabbit tetralogy here, with retired Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom in Florida half the year and then back in Pennsylvania—late in 1989: the last year of Rabbit's life, it turns out. His son Nelson has become a cocaine addict and has run the family Toyota dealership irretrievably to ground. Wife Janice is having late stirrings of independence, studying for a real-estate license. But Harry effectively is beyond the social net: his days are colored by rays of doom, melancholy, desuetude—a winding-down he fights mostly with the only appetite still strong in him, a taste for terrible junk food. The candy, salty snacks, and fried foods he stuffs into himself—Updike's prose about this orgy of junk-eating is unforgettably un judging—bring on two heart attacks. Between them, Harry's other strongest life-force briefly and unexpectedly kicks in as well, involving a one-night mutual consolation, in bed, with Nelson's wife Pru. This central indiscretion is what powers the little plot there is in the book. It is the symbol of Rabbit-in-life, of accumulation and unearned grace (as the junk-food closing up his arteries is the symbol of his impending death, dispersal). Sex, in Updike, is as much youth as anything, what always will be young; Pm says as much to Harry afterwards. And Updike's style is eternally young too—as dour and down as Rabbit is feeling, the book is a grabbing gluttony of detail, about Florida and Pennsylvania and angiography and golf and modern car radios and motels and TV programs. This crazed, immoderately layered glare of specifics is, in some ways, unmeet in a book of farewell. But it is absolutely true to the slightly amoral, excessive, hungry spirit of the Rabbit series. Updike knows it, tying up loose ends from the earlier books in little elegant cinches, making references and in-jokes; it is sometimes more a book about the other books than a wholly interesting thing in itself. But it ends the project very movingly and justly with the ebb-tide slackness of age and the body's treachery and the spirit's unwillingness to surrender youth. It caps a remarkable and unique achievement no other American writer has really pulled off. These try to be—and largely succeed in being—national books. Balzac would have been impressed.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1990

ISBN: 0449911942

Page Count: 586

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1990

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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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