An intense book for those who love a literary puzzle—difficult to read but equally difficult to forget.



A motley assemblage of oddballs, frat boys, and pharmacological explorers delve deeply into love, sex, drugs, and philosophy in this debut novel.

Ostensibly, this novel tells the story of Stranger, a lovesick, drunken, acid-freak college student, but author Schmeling takes the device of interior monologue to a new level, continually escaping the confines of simple narrative in the service of puns, wordplay, ontology, epistemology, name-dropping, polemics, and all-out, guns-blazing alliteration: “The film flickered in flits and flashes of fabulous light.” As a big-man-on-campus fraternity brother, Stranger swaggers appropriately, but he’s really using alcohol, sex (he admits that he’s never had sex sober), drugs, and Homeric bull sessions with fellow misfits Jester, Dudemeister, and Variable to mask his innate insecurity and anxiety. He lives in a generic frat house at an unnamed school, where people continually come and go, absorbing booze, psychedelics, and assorted other drugs—sometimes passing out, sometimes vomiting. All the while, the characters hold forth on topics from the intellectual to the inane before exiting to carry on their merry-prankster existences elsewhere. Stranger is shown to be ambivalent about his place in the world, partially due to the fact that he comes from a mixed-race background. His love for Gunny, a woman with a fragile psyche who’s involved with another man, develops as the two find that they can honestly communicate with each other. Gunny reveals to Stranger that she cuts herself, and after a good deal of procrastination, he reveals his feelings for her. For Gunny, however, the relationship will always be platonic, which causes Stranger to vacillate between hostility and submissiveness. Readers will need to break out their dictionaries, Who’s Whos, books on history, philosophy, and political science, and any other reference materials they can get their hands on for this dense, stream-of-consciousness, James Joyce–meets–William S. Burroughs roller-coaster ride. There isn’t much plot, but like Honoré de Balzac, Schmeling seems to know everything there is to know about every subject he touches on; he has no trouble expounding at length on diverse fields from anthropology to zoology. His digressions, which effectively comprise the bulk of the book, sound off on a wide range of subjects, including popular music, race relations, Trumpism, romantic love, animal rights, economics, drug use, and the far reaches of the multiverse. The author’s way with words is witty, wild, subtle, and sonorous, with nearly every sentence seeming to blast references like shrapnel in all directions. His numerous bons mots are clever and insightful: “Secrets. We tell them when we have the feeling someone already knows.” Schmeling makes skillful use of allusion, as in this biblical reference: “whole crowds devouring red herrings and loaves, but return to the people what is the people’s.” He also uses offbeat literary devices, including an interesting trick to emphasize his words and slow his readers down: “That. She. Accused. One. Of. The. Warrior’s. Brothers. Too. Maybe. He. Did. It.”

An intense book for those who love a literary puzzle—difficult to read but equally difficult to forget.

Pub Date: July 30, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-387-11645-4

Page Count: 442

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 23, 2018

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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