BLUEBEARD

A NOVEL

Likable, jaunty, lesser Vonnegut: the chatty autobiography of minor Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian (a minor player in Breakfast of Champions)—interspersed with Rabo's present-day doings in his posh, art-treasure-filled manse in East Hampton, Long Island. Now 70-ish, a loner since the death of his super-rich, beloved second wife, Rabo hasn't painted for years. His potato-barn studio is locked, with his final, secret masterwork contained therein (á la Bluebeard); his house bursts with the Pollocks and Rothkos and such he acquired years ago for little or nothing; his own so-so oeuvre is nonexistent, having self-destructed—"thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions between the sizing of my canvases and the acrylic wall-paint and colored tapes I had applied to them." So Rabo is writing his memoirs, despite frequent interruptions from his new, self-invited house. guest: nosy, pushy, voluptuous Circe Berman, 43, widow of a Baltimore brain-surgeon, and author (under the "Polly Madison" pseudonym) of super-popular YA novels. And there are also occasional visits from neighbor-chum Paul Slazinger, a penniless, artistic novelist whose fragile psyche is hard-hit by the presence of crafty, nonartistic best-selling "Polly Madison." The memoirs themselves also feature this hoary art/commerce dichotomy. As an artistically gifted boy in 1920's California, child of Armenian immigrants (traumatized by the Turkish atrocities), Rabo writes fan letters to famous, super-realistic NYC illustrator Dan Gregory (nÉ Gregorian)—and wins, long-distance, the heart of Gregory's abused mistress Marilee Kemp. This leads to an apprenticeship with creepy Gregory (a graphic "taxidermist"), a brief affair with Marilee ("three hours of ideal lovemaking"), and a lifelong preoccupation with technique vs. "soul" in painting. Later on there's WW II service as a camouflage specialist (Rabo loses an eye), an unnerving reunion with war. scarred Marilee in Italy, and bohemian days with the young Abstract Expressionists—focusing on a fictional, self-destroying genius named Terry Kitchen. The book's final revelation—the nature of the secret painting locked up in the potato-barn—finds Vonnegut returning, without much force, to his favorite antiwar themes. Elsewhere, too, the familiar messages—pacifist, humanist, feminist—are worked in rather clumsily. But the curmudgeonly interplay with unstoppable snoop Circe/Polly has a bright comic edge reminiscent, mildly, of Berger and Bellow; the sprightly memoirs have just a light, airy shading of fable and exaggeration. So, though less arresting or Vivid or disturbing than prime Vonnegut (and a disappointment for readers expecting real development of the Abstract Expressionist angle), this is an easy-to-take mixture of comic diversion, low-key satire, and unabashed preaching.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1987

ISBN: 038533351X

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1987

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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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