An imaginative work craftily depicting the failure of imagination that is American racism.

THE RIB KING

A historical thriller delves into the raw, knotty roots of racial uplift and upheaval that have been transforming America up to the present moment.

In her debut, The Talented Ribkins, (2017), Hubbard ingeniously blended the motifs of superhero comic books into a bittersweet road novel tracing the scattered destinies of Black civil rights crusaders. Her follow-up departs from the fantastic but is no less inventive. It begins in 1914 New Orleans with August Sitwell, an enigmatic, circumspect Black man working as groundskeeper for an estate belonging to the Barclays, an upper-class White family no longer as wealthy as it once was. Sitwell became part of the family’s all-Black domestic staff when he was orphaned as a child and has grown to manhood working with “Miss Mamie,” the family’s prodigious cook, and, more recently, with Jennie Williams, a one-time “cakewalk dancer”–turned-maid, and three rambunctious young apprentices, also orphans, whom the family patriarch seeks to “civilize.” As the staff struggles to negotiate their lives among Southern Whites in the depths of the Jim Crow era, the Barclays, desperately seeking a way out of the financial doldrums, make a bargain with an ambitious food entrepreneur to sell Miss Mamie’s vaunted rib sauce to local markets under the brand “The Rib King” with Sitwell’s caricatured image on the label. Neither Mamie nor Sitwell are getting a cent from this transaction, and Sitwell reacts to this exploitation with an act of retribution that reverberates into the next decade as Jennie, by 1924 an entrepreneur with her own brand of beauty products to sell, has to make her perilous way through economic and political intrigue brought about in part by the decade’s surge of African American achievement. The two halves of Hubbard’s chronicle have distinct tones. And even if one prefers the deadpan gothic tactics of the first part to the pell-mell momentum of the second, one will be impressed at all times with Hubbard’s control over her historical milieu as well as her complicated, intriguing characterizations.

An imaginative work craftily depicting the failure of imagination that is American racism.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-297906-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2021

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Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

LUCY BY THE SEA

Lucy Barton flees pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine with ex-husband William.

This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic: her newfound closeness with William; his unfaithfulness when they were married; their two daughters’ marital and health issues; her growing friendship with Bob Burgess; the surprise reappearance of William’s half sister, Lois; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood, troubled relations with her parents, and ongoing difficulties with her sister, Vicky. To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment.

Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-44606-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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