Zuckerman in pain—physical pain, psychic pain, existential pain—as Roth continues to follow his nakedly, overbearingly autobiographical alter-ego: what was high art in The Ghost Writer became a glossy, so-so hybrid in Zuckerman Unbound. . . and has now become something intermittently powerful or funny, strangely fascinating, yet grimly embarrassing, It's 1973. Zuckerman, 40, author of the notorious Carnovsky (read Portnoy's Complaint), is still haunted by his father's death-bed curse, his brother's hatred, and now his mother's death. He hasn't been able to write a decent page in months and months. He has "lost his subject." He's losing his hair. Above all, Zuckerman has lost his health, having become half-immobilized by chronic neck and back pain: he has tried a grisly litany of doctors, including an analyst; he spends much of the day on his back on a "playmat," numbed with vodka and Percodan, ministered to (sexually and otherwise) by a quartet of girlfriends. And his only zest comes in brooding furiously over an attack on him by one Milton Appel (clearly modeled on Irving Howe)—recalling Appel's favorable review of Zuckerman's first fiction (near-exact paraphrase of Howe's actual words about Goodbye, Columbus), stewing over this recent abuse, arguing with it, indulging in unspoken tirades of retaliatory invective. How, then, can Zuckerman escape the "selfness of pain," the selfness of his writing, all this dead-end writhing, this entrapment in the past? By becoming a doctor, he thinks. So eventually he takes off to visit an old doctor-chum in Chicago, looking for reed-school-admission help. But by now he is flying from his drug/booze saturation: he hires a limo, using the name Milton Appel, "kike-pornographer," supposed editor of Lickety Split; in this role, he subjects the woman chauffeur to ugly tour-de-force fantasy-arias about porn, Hugh Hefner, Jewishness, "Appel's" life; and he winds up running amok in a Jewish cemetery—nearly throttling a grieving old man ("the last of the fathers demanding to be pleased"), fracturing his own head on a footstone, landing in the hospital. . . yet still determined to be an M.D., to "unchain himself from a future as a man apart and escape the corpus that was his." Roth's talent for half-comic ghastliness flickers vigorously throughout this nightmare-novel; his bravura wordsmanship—fine-tuned, orchestrated colloquiallism—gets ample (if contrived) exposure. But, in terms of craft, this may be Roth's weakest fiction: repetitious, unshapely, registering as a belabored short story—with a more-of-the-same ending that doesn't seem like the close of a novel, let alone the close of a trilogy. And, more important, the autobiographical premise breaks down badly here—as Roth shifts constantly, uncomfortably, between self-pity and self-deprecation, repentance and defiance, occasionally lifting the proceedings onto a more resonant level (through an almost Kafkaesque treatment of pain-as-metaphor). . . but more often sinking down into the petulance, pettiness, and sentimentality of one writer's woes and feuds. Still, if some readers will be lured (or put off) by Roth's roman clef specifics, others will be drawn to the Chinese-box ironies (Zuckerman yearning to escape "self" in '73, Roth at the summit of "self" in '83)—and to the squirming spectacle of a writer trying to find a bearable approach for fictional self-examination, trying to defend himself and crucify himself at the same time.

Pub Date: Nov. 28, 1983

ISBN: 0679749020

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.


A 12-year-old boy is the sole survivor of a plane crash—a study in before and after.

Edward Adler is moving to California with his adored older brother, Jordan, and their parents: Mom is a scriptwriter for television, Dad is a mathematician who is home schooling his sons. They will get no further than Colorado, where the plane goes down. Napolitano’s (A Good Hard Look, 2011, etc.) novel twins the narrative of the flight from takeoff to impact with the story of Edward’s life over the next six years. Taken in by his mother’s sister and her husband, a childless couple in New Jersey, Edward’s misery is constant and almost impermeable. Unable to bear sleeping in the never-used nursery his aunt and uncle have hastily appointed to serve as his bedroom, he ends up bunking next door, where there's a kid his age, a girl named Shay. This friendship becomes the single strand connecting him to the world of the living. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we meet all the doomed airplane passengers, explore their backstories, and learn about their hopes and plans, every single one of which is minutes from obliteration. For some readers, Napolitano’s premise will be too dark to bear, underlining our terrible vulnerability to random events and our inability to protect ourselves or our children from the worst-case scenario while also imagining in exhaustive detail the bleak experience of survival. The people around Edward have no idea how to deal with him; his aunt and uncle try their best to protect him from the horrors of his instant celebrity as Miracle Boy. As one might expect, there is a ray of light for Edward at the end of the tunnel, and for hardier readers this will make Napolitano’s novel a story of hope.

Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-5478-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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