THE GHOST WRITER

Is it possible that Portnoy's Complaint will some day be remembered only as the book that made Philip Roth famous enough to afford to write great, quiet novellas later on? Perhaps—because The Professor of Desire (1977) was the best Roth in years, and The Ghost Writer is even shorter and even better. The theme, beautifully twisting through three twirled narrative threads, is the artist's conflict between the obsessive demands of his calling and the separate but equal demands of family, of human contact. Famous New England/Jewish writer E. I. Lonoff, for instance, has surrendered wholeheartedly to the obsession; he's lordly, wise, funny, and noble (he quietly declined a National Book Award)—but he's been driving his well-bred wife crazy with decade after decade of gentle, helpless, selfish inhumanities. And our narrator, just-beginning writer Nathan Zuckerman, comes upon the Lonoffs at their most genteel-ly violent: he has been invited to dinner to meet and commune with his idol at the isolated Lonoff home in the Berkshires, and his visit (plus Lonoff's attentions toward Amy, a bright, lovely, and apparently disturbed co-ed who's in residence to catalogue Lonoff's work) sets off flurries of domestic anguish. But Nathan also has his own human/literary bind to brood upon, and he does so while staying overnight at the Lonoffs': he has written a true-to-life story—about family bickering over an inheritance—that is an embarrassment, a torture to his New Jersey-Jewish (but distinctly uncaricatured) father; the ensuing father/son dialogue (while standing on the street waiting for a bus) is as nakedly painful as anything Roth has written, quickly followed by Roth at his angry/funniest—as a pompous Jewish community leader joins the fray over the story with "Ten Questions for Nathan Zuckerman." And there's one more variation on the writer/family theme: during that same night Nathan concocts a fantasy about mysterious Amy—she is (or believes herself to be) the Anne Frank, longing to reveal herself to her grieving father but hesitating because a living Anne would rob her diary of its literary impact. Roth underlines none of this elegant theme-weaving, letting it all emerge through dazzling dialogue and his most understated, almost folktale-like prose. (Nathan describes another, flashier famous writer he has met—"He was like California itself—to get there you had to take a plane.") Elegantly floating and at the same time firmly grounded to home and heart—a sonata-like masterwork.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 1979

ISBN: 0679748989

Page Count: 196

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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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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THE VANISHING HALF

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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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