FLOAT UP, SING DOWN

An entertaining work of exceptional vitality.

Covering just one day, these closely linked stories reveal the many ties and secrets of a rural Indiana town.

It’s the early 1980s and Reagan is president. As she prepares for the monthly gathering of the Bright Creek Girls Gaming Club, Candy Wilson realizes she’s forgotten to buy paprika for her deviled eggs. Elsewhere in Bright Creek, Turner Davis is late getting his zinnias in. Horace Allen smells the sea from the mix of herbs and vegetables in his garden. Each of the 14 stories is named for a town resident, and most are told in a close third person that shares characters’ thoughts and memories, often in connection with their neighbors. The paprika and zinnias might suggest a fair helping of the mundane, but Hunt, whose novels have featured war, racism, and sorcery, has a lot going on here. As he charts how often, and amusingly, characters’ paths cross in a small town, he delves into “all those little secrets that weren’t secrets at all,” from a teacher who is fired amid rumors of lesbianism to a high school custodian who was once a “promising ballroom dancer” to a World War II veteran who found unrequited love on Crete. Hunt gets a lot of life on the page with the shrewd accumulation of details. The teacher, Irma Ray, recently hanged herself, and her real secret is a late revelation. Also appearing is Zorrie Underwood, the title character from Hunt’s novel Zorrie (2021), which furnishes a few other people in the new work. This sort of cross-pollination comes up in recent novels by Elizabeth Strout and Michael Farris Smith, both writers with a defined literary terrain, which may be something Hunt is working toward. In broader terms, his book harks back to Our Town, of which Thornton Wilder said he sought “to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.”

An entertaining work of exceptional vitality.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781639730100

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2023

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

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

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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 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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