What’s most memorable about these twin blasts from the past is Oates’ mastery of distinctly different flavors of nightmare,...

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THE TRIUMPH OF THE SPIDER MONKEY

A reprint of a minor novella first published in 1976 that’s still a full-blown freak show of serial murder, psychological self-torment, and literal disintegration.

Ever since he was plucked from inside a locker in a New York bus terminal shortly after his birth in 1944, Bobbie Gotteson, aka the Maniac, has shattered expectations, and not in a good way. He’s traveled the country as a singer and songwriter, screen-tested (or maybe not: the putative studio denies it, and no footage has survived) for a movie role, and spent considerable time in prison. Now, put on trial for one of nine murders, more or less, he’s accused of committing, he lets it all hang out, recalling his relationships with Melva, whose son he’s been mistaken for; Danny Minx, his rapist and protector in stir; Baby Sharleen, who killed herself before she could testify against him; and a host of wraithlike women who drift in and out of his consciousness. “Consciousness,” in fact, may be too definite a term for Bobbie’s monologue, which persistently tramples on the distinctions between inside and outside, laughing and screaming, guitars and machetes, Jesus and Satan, first and third person, and the sanity Bobbie claims and the madness he acknowledges. A straight-faced footnote announces early on that “all remarks in this strange document are the Maniac’s, even those he attributes to the ‘court’ and to other people.” Oates (My Life as a Rat, 2019, etc.) withholds the gruesome details of Bobbie’s butchery; the defiant confession of this fictional counterpart of Charles Manson is horrific, often carnivalesque, but never salacious or sensationalistic. As a bonus, this edition includes Love, Careless Love, a sequel of sorts that traces the doomed bond that forms between Dewalene, a young woman still traumatized by her encounter with Bobbie, and Jules, the disturbed young man hired for unknown reasons to keep an eye on her.

What’s most memorable about these twin blasts from the past is Oates’ mastery of distinctly different flavors of nightmare, from the surreal to the flat-out demented.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-78565-677-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Hard Case Crime

Review Posted Online: May 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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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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