The rare one-joke book that never gets old, with a pleasingly tangy aftertaste.



As heard on This American Life, here’s a little something for any who’ve ever had a “friend” whose amazing life made their own seem pathetic.

Set up as a one-way conversation, with the protagonist never heard but always painfully felt, the story takes some generationally specific insecurities and spins them into a novel about growing up in the 1990s and never getting anywhere. The never-heard-from victim is a woman graduating from Clarkwell College in 1990 and doomed to make a career out of a degree in Folk & Myth, only to be subjected to a series of interactions over the following years with the titular Underminer, a diabolically manipulative “best friend” who’s always there to remind the victim just how ludicrous her life is, though she’s never without a smile on her face. Underminer reminds the victim of her relationship missteps (“they were really close all through freshman year before you grabbed him I mean pinned him down I mean started dating him”), fashion miscues, personal hygiene problems (“Did you throw up? No, no I just smelled throw-up for a second”) and weight issues (“You look sexy the way your body looks now. You’re not too fat”). The dialogue rolls forward through 15 years, the victim bumping into the Underminer at every passing cultural signpost (indie filmmaking, Burning Man, Internet dating), always half a step behind and terminally clueless. Her friends all go on to bigger and better things while her band comes to naught, her poetry doesn’t pan out, and before long she’s a cater-waiter at glamorous parties the Underminer is almost too cool to attend. Comic monologist and fiction author Albo (Hornito, not reviewed) and Heffernan, Albo’s co-writer and TV critic for the New York Times, skillfully mine the slacker generation’s insecurity—with its need to be in on the next big thing without appearing to care—and add a spicy dash of psychological tension as the Underminer cheerfully chips away at every facet of the victim’s desires and achievements until little is left. Yet funny.

The rare one-joke book that never gets old, with a pleasingly tangy aftertaste.

Pub Date: Feb. 15, 2005

ISBN: 1-58234-484-1

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2004

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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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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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