n imaginative but unconvincing satire about presidential candidates.

The Man without Qualities

A satirical novel tells the story of a man whose modest social experiment becomes a major political movement.

At 70 years old, George Haskel has just retired from a lifetime of teaching German literature. An American since the age of 5, George nevertheless still finds the United States and its people incomprehensible: a nation in the constant pursuit of money, celebrity, and a vague desire to be found interesting. He devises a plan: “So when I retired, it struck me that it might be fun, in a kind of screwy way, to construct a story about myself as an infinitely dull person, and see what would happen if I were to interact with other people on that basis.” After a trial run leads to a sexual encounter in Mexico, George decides to go after bigger fish: the presidential candidates running for office in America. He manages to disrupt a Hillary Clinton rally, asking the room: why bother? The crowd turns on the candidate, and she undergoes a meltdown that ends her political career. George than embarks on forming the Dullness Institute, an organization that attracts millions of members, including a cadre of celebrity patrons like Susan Sarandon, Philip Roth, and Bill Maher, and sets his sights on the White House. The title references the unfinished Robert Musil novel of the same name, a favorite of George’s that the reader catches him reading from time to time. Berman (Coming to Our Senses, 2015, etc.), a talented writer, creates an attractive comic tone that carries the reader along. Even so, the author’s satire isn’t as biting as he wants it to be. It isn’t that he pulls punches—he doesn’t—but his central political complaint (“What can any candidate do for us at this point in American history?”) fails to convince the reader, particularly in the midst of an election when the various candidates are distinct from one another in terms of philosophy, platform, and personality. Furthermore, while George represents many things— contrarianism, fatalism, apathy, disdain—dullness isn’t one of them, which undermines Berman’s whole conceit. The author’s diagnosis of society feels simplistic; his prescription for its improvement remains unclear.

n imaginative but unconvincing satire about presidential candidates.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-9883343-5-9

Page Count: 176

Publisher: The Oliver Arts & Open Press

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2016

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Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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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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