JAILBIRD

A NOVEL

No one can make America into childlike myth like Vonnegut can. Here he takes capitalism, labor history, Sacco-Vanzetti, McCarthyism, and Watergate, and puts them all into the slender memoirs of Walter F. Starbuck—a chauffeur's son who was mentored by the scion of a great and ruthless corporation, was sent to Harvard, but was abandoned when he was caught dabbling in the 1930s left-wing; which meant that Walter had to make his own way as a WW II soldier, Washington civil servant, unintentional stoolie in a Hiss/Chambers-type case, unemployed husband (his concentration-camp-survivor wife supported them with interior decorating), and finally Nixon's token "advisor for youth affairs" and a very minor Watergate convict. So now old Walter is getting out of minimum-security prison (where he has met Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout), without a friend in the world—his wife is dead and his son is "a very unpleasant person. . . a book reviewer for The New York Times"—and with hopes of becoming a bartender somewhere in Manhattan. All this is told in Vonnegut's customary fatless, detail-rich, musical prose (with the usual ironic asides: "And on and on," "Peace," "Strong-stuff"), and it's strangely touching, occasionally boldly funny. But as good as he is at building a haunted, hilariously compressed myth out of our shared past, Vonnegut can't keep it from collapsing into silliness when he tries to propel it into the future; Walter's post-prison adventures are so fairy-tale-ish and theme-heavy that they lose that precariously balanced aura of truer-than-true. Once in Manhattan, he meets the major people from his past in one coincidence after another, including his old flame and fellow left-winger Mary Kathleen O'Looney, who is now a N.Y. shopping-bag lady living beneath Grand Central Station—but is she really a bag lady? No! She's really "the legendary Mrs. Jack Graham," never-seen majority stockholder in the all-powerful RAMJAC Corporation. So Waiter is suddenly made a corporate bigwig, and, when Mary Kathleen secretly dies, he illegally (but well-meaningly) keeps the company going. . . and winds up a jailbird again. Rich/poor, honest/criminal, management/labor—Vonnegut is playfully exploring the ease with which an American Everyman can alternate between these ostensible extremes. But he has covered much of that ground before—principally in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater—and he himself seems to become bored and mechanical halfway through. Not top-drawer Vonnegut, then, but guilty/innocent Walter is a fine creation, and there's enough of the author's narrative zip to keep fans happy even while the novel fizzles into foolishness.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0385333900

Page Count: 316

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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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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