The President's Butler

A butler recounts his service to an egomaniacal businessman who runs for president.

Billy Baxter’s mother runs a modest grocery store, which supports a family life he seemed to find unfulfilling from an early age. One day, Harrison Helm III, an obviously wealthy man, pulls up to the store in a luxury car looking to refill the tank and takes an interest in Billy. Harrison eventually invites Billy to come work on his mother’s vast estate, referred to as Valhalla, as a full-time footman who lives on the grounds. After years of dedicated service, Billy ascends to the position of head butler and ends up toiling at Valhalla for 22 years. He cultivates a friendly rapport with Mrs. Helm, but upon her death, he resigns his position and accepts a new one as butler for the estate’s new owner, Vincent V. Victor. Victor is a notoriously crass but extraordinarily rich businessman, and many see him as an opportunistic oligarch who represents the worst of American capitalism. The parallels between Victor and Donald Trump are clearly intended: Victor, a bestselling author of business books, creates an NBC special called The Great American Breast Contest, a hilarious spoof of the televised Miss America pageant. Reviled for his shady business tactics, he runs for president on a rhetorically bombastic platform that promises to revitalize America through trade protectionism and the cessation of illegal immigration. He circulates conspiracy theories, denounces the evils of political correctness, and runs against an opponent he mockingly refers to as “Flopping Sally.” Leamer (The Lynching, 2016, etc.) deftly charts the arc of Billy’s life from vulgar poverty to aristocratically civilized wealth to an unusual combination of the two. The principal strength of the work is the elegant first-person narration Billy provides; the entire book is presented as his memoir. Billy’s gimlet-eyed observations display remarkable restraint, typically withholding judgment, and his peculiar life experience is itself a kind of master tutorial in the nuances of American class. Despite its heavy reliance on the imitation of current affairs, this work is an impressively inventive tale, with considerable wisdom to boot. A fictional dramatization of America’s current presidential race, skillfully rendered.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-692-76574-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Foggy Bottom Books

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2016

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.


Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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