THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE

In 1972, the mature David Kepesh told us how he turned into The Breast, but here are his earlier, less symbolic guises—child of the Borscht Belt, scholar of Chekhov and Kafka, and wrestler with temptation. Believing that "my desire is desire, it is not to be belittled or despised," young David uses his literature-in-London grant to become a "visiting fellow in erotic daredevilry" in the Swedish company of anything-goes Birgitta and secretly shy Elisabeth. Saddled with the guilt of having corrupted Elisabeth, David moves on and West—to "hopeless misalliance" with wife Helen, "runner-up for Queen of Tibet," a dramatic heroine radiantly ruined by her long affair with a colonial tycoon (who has her imprisoned when she leaves David for further Far-East adventuressing). An inertial move back East—to Long Island classes, family ties, and analysis: "I cannot maintain an erection, Dr. Klinger. I cannot maintain a smile, for that matter." And finally schoolteacher Claire, who, if Birgitta represented a lust-indulging "more," represents, on a trip to Europe and in a summer-rented farmhouse, the comforts of "enough." But is enough enough? And will it last? Even forgetting The Breast, probably not, for David Kepesh is a direct descendant of Neil Klugman and Alexander Portnoy, doomed to kvtech his lonely way out of any possible happiness. But the kvetching here is muted (as it sometimes was in My Life as a Man), as if Roth is desperately demanding that we take this problem of desire more seriously than he seemed to take it himself in Portnoy or The Breast. And, if this gravity makes David's self-pity and narcissism somewhat indigestible, it also allows Roth to find a quieter music in the Jewish word-rhythms that have blared raucously before. The portraits of Kepesh's food-foisting, cancer-stricken mother, of his widowed father (and fund-raising buddy Mr. Barbatnik), of aging urban academics—Roth achieves an unprecedented, tough, nostalgic tenderness. And David's musings on Kafka and Chekhov, though they may not manage to shed light on or ennoble his own groinal Angst, make him a more substantial schlemiel than his precursors. From the waist down, then—the same old story, sans laughs; but, in head and heart—a subdued and seductive journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 1977

ISBN: 0679749004

Page Count: 282

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1977

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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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