THE COUNTERLIFE

Much of the last two decades' metafictional nattering is made to look like so much sandbox-play by Roth's new novel; if the technique of ostensibly real characters imagining they're in books (and vice-versa) has a fatal flaw, it's that neither character nor book usually tackles the unbearable alibis, transgressions, and needs—and the punishingly naked absurdity—that both art and life seem to demand. But that's what Roth, in his most virtuoso effort yet, has done here. Disenfranchisement, re-creation, and the severe guilt of independence are the I-beams of Roth's Zuckerman books—of which this is one—but never has the ceiling vaulted so high, the aim been so nervy. The earlier books were the deathbeds of novelist Zuckerman's father and mother, and it's now the turn of Nathan's dentist brother Henry to die. He does so semi-electively: rendered impotent by heart medication, he goes through with a multiple bypass that fails fatally. Yet the book's very next section, "Judea," finds Henry not dead but in Israel, on the West Bank, in thrall to a right-wing Jewish Kahane-type—and Nathan leaving his own peaceful London writer's existence to try to walk some sense into his kid brother, to get him to return home to his family. How did Henry dead turn into Henry the irrendentist? The same way, it turns out, that it's actually Nathan—in the section called "Gloucestershire"—who's died to restore his potency. Henry's story, then, is one that Nathan wrote; and Nathan's story may be the book we're reading, subject to disputes and interruptions and resentments from those closest to him, lives he has cannibalized for the art-pot. Whether Henry's, Nathan's, or Nathan's new Gentile British wife's, it isn't clear until the end which story is true, which made up—but each section (including an El Al hijacking Nathan is unwilling party to) faces another like a mirror, bringing characters back to themselves, real or not. The presiding theme, never more naked, is Jewishness, complete with Talmudic feints, discontinuous pleating (a lesson learned, one senses, from Roth's admiration for Central European fiction, Kundera and the like)—allowing Roth to write a book of intellectual argument and atavistic rejoinder that someone like Saul Bellow has been lately trying to write, without success. The Israel sections alone are brilliant reportage; in tangled context—of fictional projection, an assuaging of guilt by secular Nathan—they suggest a kind of forced and frightened choral laughter. Certainly Roth's most complex, ambitious work—and one of his best.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1986

ISBN: 0679749047

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1986

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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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