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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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her...

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

Avery Stafford, a lawyer, descendant of two prominent Southern families and daughter of a distinguished senator, discovers a family secret that alters her perspective on heritage.

Wingate (Sisters, 2016, etc.) shifts the story in her latest novel between present and past as Avery uncovers evidence that her Grandma Judy was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and is related to a woman Avery and her father meet when he visits a nursing home. Although Avery is living at home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment, she is also being groomed for her own political career. Readers learn that investigating her family’s past is not part of Avery's scripted existence, but Wingate's attempts to make her seem torn about this are never fully developed, and descriptions of her chemistry with a man she meets as she's searching are also unconvincing. Sections describing the real-life orphanage director Georgia Tann, who stole poor children, mistreated them, and placed them for adoption with wealthy clients—including Joan Crawford and June Allyson—are more vivid, as are passages about Grandma Judy and her siblings. Wingate’s fans and readers who enjoy family dramas will find enough to entertain them, and book clubs may enjoy dissecting the relationship and historical issues in the book.

Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her fictional characters' lives.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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