Ruffin’s surrealist take on racism owes much to Invisible Man and George S. Schuyler’s similarly themed 1931 satire, Black...

As with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the black narrator of this rakishly funny and distressingly up-to-the-minute debut novel doesn’t disclose his name, because, he says, “I’m a phantom, [and] a figment.”

In a near-future America where racial divisions have become, if anything, deeper and bleaker than they are now, our nameless narrator has, through guile, pluck, spit, and polish, worked his way to associate attorney with Seasons, Ustis & Malveaux, a powerful law firm with tentacles reaching to every stratum of a city known here only as the City. Though wound tight from having to look over his shoulder at every potential office competitor, the narrator is determined to do whatever he can to ingratiate himself with his bosses and secure a full partnership, whether by enduring cornball plantation tours, struggling to overcome courtroom jitters, or agreeing to be chairman and sole African-American member of the firm's “diversity committee.” It’s all for the sake of his biracial son, Nigel, who has a black birthmark on his face that's grown so large over time that the narrator will try anything to make it fade, from oversized baseball caps for blocking the sun to skin-lightening creams whose application bewilders Nigel and enrages his white mother, Penny. The narrator is desperate for his son to avoid the fate of many other black men who have been consigned either to substandard neighborhoods or, as is the case with the narrator’s estranged father, prison. (“The world is a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity,” the narrator laments.) But a bigger paycheck from his firm would enable the narrator to pay for what promises to be the ultimate solution: an experimental medical procedure that will not only remove Nigel’s birthmark, but make him look totally Caucasian. Whether they're caused by delusion, naiveté, dread, rage, or some combination thereof, the narrator’s excesses sometimes make him as hard for the reader to endure as he is for those who either love or barely tolerate him. But his intensely rhythmic and colorful voice lifts you along with him on his frenetic odyssey.

Ruffin’s surrealist take on racism owes much to Invisible Man and George S. Schuyler’s similarly themed 1931 satire, Black No More. Yet the ominous resurgence of white supremacy during the Trump era enhances this novel’s resonance and urgency.

Pub Date: Jan. 29, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50906-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018



The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992



The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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