BILLY DEAD

A legacy of family violence and sexual abuse haunts the desperate characters who populate this melodramatic first novel by an award-winning playwright. Ray Johnson, youngest son of a wildly dysfunctional rural Michigan family, narrates—in a sometimes laconic, sometimes drunkenly agitated voice—the events following and preceding the brutal murder of his older brother Billy, an intemperate good-for-nothing who had mercilessly battered and exhausted his long-suffering wife, children, and relatives. In the three days between Billy’s death and his funeral, while the local sheriff investigates significant clues left at the murder scene, Ray recalls the endangered years he and his siblings endured, his stormy relationship with his tough younger sister Jean, and his own understandable reasons for wishing “Billy dead.” Reardon thus presents her novel’s events via a skillfully handled backward-and-forward structure that keeps us guessing about the killer’s identity and, specifically, whether Ray is indeed so out of control that he may have committed fratricide and been unable to remember it. There’s ample reason to suspect him: he experiences moments when animals (a huge raccoon, his beloved dog Samson) talk to him, and he hallucinates Billy’s ghost in a scene that appears to be pure guilt fantasy. But the story moves in several directions simultaneously, powered by crisp, often grimly funny dialogue (a dim-witted neighbor assures Ray “I’ll tell you who killed him . . . . It was that bunch of Satanists over to Clark Lake”) and vivid characterizations of secondary figures (a likably senile centenarian is the best of several such). But the novel labors to kayo us: the Johnsons’ various pitched battles are luridly over the top, and the story climaxes with the arrest of Billy’s murderer and a (not-to-be-believed) getaway crowned by a promise of escape, even renewal: it’s as if Thelma and Louise had settled for so-so husbands and lived happily ever after. Vivid and often gripping, but unmodulated, and finally not very convincing.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88224-0

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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