ROGER'S VERSION

A NOVEL

Roger here is Roger Lambert, a grouchy, burnt-out divinity-school professor, a give-no-quarter Karl Barth-ian who one day entertains a visitor in his office: a pale and unprepossessing researcher in the computer facilities of the University. This boy—Dale—has an idea for a grant he'd like funded. By computer analysis, he wants to prove once and for all that God exists. He claims to keep running across significant numbers, sets, relationships—only decipherable to the omnivorous memory of the machine—that lead to some discoverable point upon which God must turn, that simply can't be coincidental. Lambert is less than impressed. The idea seems impious, robbing man of faith, reducing that to an equation. But the ardor of Dale the hacker is splendid, in contrast to Lambert's own ruined religiosity. So strict and punishing is Lambert's disgust at what cinders are left of his faith that someone like Dale is able to utterly flummox him—as well as eventually have an affair with his wife, Esther. In the meantime, Lambert tries to straighten out a slutty half-niece, resulting in a little adultery of his own—as well as offering a lesson in pity and relative evil when the girl mistreats her illegitimate and half-black infant daughter. In a relatively plotless book for Updike, what plot there is—Dale and Esther, Lambert and his niece—seems especially stiff. Maybe it's because so much of the book is spent in long spoken expositions of Dale's computer knowledge—something with which Updike is clearly fascinated. When intellectually fascinated, Updike sometimes becomes entranced (see the section in The Witches of Eastwick where one of the women plays a Bach suite on the cello: meticulously correct technical information becomes a plague on the reader), but the enchantment here is very hard to share: it seems a function of authorial curiosity and play of mind—but it doesn't necessarily claw into any of the characters. What does claw—into Roger Lambert—is a theme Updike has used before but never so explicitly: sex as despair. Using Roger's lecture notes on Tertullian and Barth, Updike gives clear shape here to what his work has been prefiguring for years: "the flesh is man." In a book with so demanding a religious/intellectual theme, this is happily startling and quite ironic. It's only too bad that it couldn't have more fully been shown than said.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 1986

ISBN: 0449912183

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1986

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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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