In this tragicomic novel, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

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A GAMBLER'S ANATOMY

Lethem’s 10th novel is a romp in which history, both personal and collective, can't help but assert itself.

Lethem's new novel tells the story of a backgammon hustler named Alexander Bruno who suffers from a pair of physical (or metaphysical) disorders: first, telepathy, or second sight, and then a membranous tumor beneath the surface of his face that does have the happy side effect of keeping his psychic abilities at bay. But when the tumor needs to be removed, Bruno encounters the key conundrum of this free-wheeling novel: that sometimes survival requires more than a bit of despair. Bruno discovers this when he returns to Berkeley, where he was raised, to confront the ghosts of his history, embodied in the figure of Keith Stolarsky, a childhood friend who, for his own reasons, decides to bankroll Bruno’s surgery and recovery. “Why had Stolarsky wanted to save Bruno?” Lethem asks. “What was his life for?” The question cuts two ways. For Bruno, the issue is life or death but also more than that, because the life he has built—traveling alone and playing backgammon as a way of walling off not just his gift (such as it is), but indeed his very heritage—must be altered, drastically. “You asked me to save you,” his surgeon reflects, “but to save you I had to destroy you. That is what I do.” Stolarsky’s motives are more elusive; a reclusive entrepreneur and hippie capitalist, he is, at heart, about control. As such, the novel turns, as it must, conspiratorial, although, as in most conspiracies, it is not always clear who is manipulating whom. Think Thomas Pynchon (whose books this one superficially resembles), especially in the scenes set in Berkeley, a landscape of hipster burger shops and lost souls still longing for a revolution that washed out in an undertow of drugs and dissolution decades before. That makes the novel a fitting follow-up to Dissident Gardens (2013), which traced a different (and not unrelated) set of radical breakdowns, those of New York in the 1950s and the communist left. Lest this sound weighty, it’s not, so much: Lethem takes real pleasure in the language and writes with a sense of the absurd that illuminates his situations and his characters. “Telegraph Avenue,” he writes, describing Berkeley’s famous open-air market of countercultural chaos, “the island of lost toys.” It’s a vivid metaphor.

In this tragicomic novel, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53990-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Aug. 8, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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