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TALKING ANIMALS

Weird yet engrossing and hard to forget.

Murphy offers a satirical fable set in an alternate world peopled by all species of animals.

New York City is introduced as a “vessel for animals” in Murphy’s first chapter, a purposely grandiose history of the city in which readers will assume animal references—“herds,” “invasive species”—are metaphoric. They’re not, or only in the sense that the book is one giant metaphor, a 21st-century combination of Animal Farm and Aesop's Fables. It's also a political thriller about an unwitting government bureaucrat uncovering corruption—think Robert Redford in his Three Days of the Condor period except he’s a llama or alpaca. The alpaca would be Alfonzo, toiling in the basement of City Hall as second assistant to the nonexistent assistant to the nonexistent commissioner of records while also working on his Ph.D. Illicitly printing out his dissertation at work, he borrows office paper from his friend Mitchell, a llama who works on housing issues (a humorous tip of the hat to New York's Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program). Better at office politics than his friend, Mitchell nevertheless feels caught between the needs of the poor and homeless versus the demands of landlords and the mayor, whom he hates. Alfonzo’s dissertation is rejected, in part because the scrap paper Mitchell has given him happens to have irrelevant facts and figures printed on the pre-used side. Meanwhile, right-wing radio is influencing land animals to blame sea animals “for every woe,” and Alfonzo finds a publication in his bag from the resistance movement SERF, the Sea Equality Revolutionary Front, a cause Mitchell’s lemur girlfriend, a barista, has been pushing. When Alfonzo learns his department is being closed, and the reason, he and Mitchell are spurred into action. Murphy packs a lot of issues—class, climate change immigration, vegetarianism, and more—into a familiar plot about malfeasance. She balances her poetic ruminations and dogmatic lecturing with a goofy relish for puns, from “The Five Burrows” of New York to the “freshly groomed” horse mayor to “Reading Rainboa" to radical “Bobby Seal.”

Weird yet engrossing and hard to forget.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-53874-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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ALL FOURS

This tender, strange treatise on getting out from the “prefab structures” of a conventional life is quintessentially July.

A woman set to embark on a cross-country road trip instead drives to a nearby motel and becomes obsessed with a local man.

According to Harris, the husband of the narrator of July’s novel, everyone in life is either a Parker or a Driver. “Drivers,” Harris says, “are able to maintain awareness and engagement even when life is boring.” The narrator knows she’s a Parker, someone who needs “a discrete task that seems impossible, something…for which they might receive applause.” For the narrator, a “semi-famous” bisexual woman in her mid-40s living in Los Angeles, this task is her art; it’s only by haphazard chance that she’s fallen into a traditional straight marriage and motherhood. When the narrator needs to be in New York for work, she decides on a solo road trip as a way of forcing herself to be more of a metaphorical Driver. She makes it all of 30 minutes when, for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, she pulls over in Monrovia. After encountering a man who wipes her windows at a gas station and then chats with her at the local diner, she checks in to a motel, where she begins an all-consuming intimacy with him. For the first time in her life, she feels truly present. But she can only pretend to travel so long before she must go home and figure out how to live the rest of a life that she—that any woman in midlife—has no map for. July’s novel is a characteristically witty, startlingly intimate take on Dante’s “In the middle of life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood”—if the dark wood were the WebMD site for menopause and a cheap room at the Excelsior Motel.

This tender, strange treatise on getting out from the “prefab structures” of a conventional life is quintessentially July.

Pub Date: May 14, 2024

ISBN: 9780593190265

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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