GOD KNOWS

Some Promised Land. The honey was there, but the milk we brought in with our goats. To people in California, God gives a magnificent coastline, a movie industry, and Beverly Hills. To us He gives:sand. To Cannes He gives a plush film festival. We get the PLO." Who's that talking, you ask? That's none other than the Old Testament's King David, who retells his long Biblical story on his deathbed—with a voice (and a viewpoint) that's part Mel Brooks, part Woody Allen, and all Joseph Heller. King David lies dying, terminally cold, unwarmed even by the lovely virgin Abishag the Shunammite. He still lusts after zaftig wife Bathsheba, who won't accommodate David's lust until he agrees to declare Solomon—a doltish plagiarist—as successor to the crown of Israel. So the miserable old king remembers the whole shmear: from crazy Saul and stupid Goliath to poor, snake-ish Absalom. And Heller has a generous grab-bag of ironic, earthy ideas here: David the psalmist, the career-poet, jealous when his best material is stolen by Solomon; David the Jewish husband, with first-wife Michal as the original J.A.P.; David the aging scion and general. Throughout, in fact, the Biblical original is worked through closely, with impressive stamina and elaboration—and, as a short story or novella, perhaps, the notion would have been pure champagne. . . even if clearly pressed from the grapes of Brooks' 2000-Year-Old-Man routines. Here, however, as in George MacDonald Fraser's swashbuckling parody, The Pyrates (p. 586), the basic gimmicks—the blithely outrageous anachronisms, the double-takes, the raunchy Yiddish/English slang, the varied lampoons on King James Bible phraseology—become dutiful and predictable at big-novel length. Meanwhile, Heller's more interesting character/history/theology inventions (e.g., the David/Bathsheba relationship) remain undeveloped, with the Borscht Belt rhythms too relentless to allow for depth or nuance. And the entire vaudeville enterprise eventually seems wilted, formula-creased. Still, what Heller manages to do with faithful attention to the scriptures of Samuel I and II and Kings is often remarkable. ("The first time I laid eyes on Abigail—I was girded for battle and thirsting for vengeance as I marched along the road to Carmel—my member grew hard as hickory and I sheepishly and modestly veiled it from notice with a folded newspaper.") It's also often shtick-ishly hilarious: "'You said pisseth, didn't you?' 'Pisseth?' "That'th right. You thaid all who pisseth against the wall.' 'I timid pisseth?' I was furious now and answered him with a heat that equaled his own. 'I thaid no thuch thing.' 'Yeth, you did. Athk anyone.'" So, though sometimes only half-amusing and never really persuasive as a serious theological farce (David is waiting for an apology from God), Heller's Biblical free-for-all is sure to win a substantial, curious, browsing-and-sampling audience.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 1984

ISBN: 0684841258

Page Count: 373

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1984

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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