ZUCKERMAN UNBOUND

In The Ghost Writer (1979), Roth explored the tensions between being-an-artist and being-a-human-being; he used the nakedly autobiographical figure of young (in the mid-1950s) writer Nathan Zuckerman; he compressed all the action into a few days; he wove his theme through sequences ranging from fantasy and farce to Chekhovian realism; and he came up with a magical novel, perhaps the best book of his career. But here, though Roth tries to re-gather all these same elements for a repeat performance, the pieces (some funny, some affecting, some limp) simply don't come together. It's 1969 now, and Zuckerman is a celebrity—thanks to Carnovsky (read Portnoy), his scandalous novel about Jewish motherhood and masturbation. But he's made "a fiasco of fame and fortune": unhappy, badly dressed, recently divorced, still taking buses(i). His magisterial agent says: "What are you up to, anyway? . . . Are you trying to show them up in heaven and over at Commentary that you are only a humble, self-effacing yeshiva bucher and not the obstreperous author of such an indecent book?" Worse yet, people stop him in the street—people like Alvin Pepler, a nutcase who clings to his one brush with fame (as a 1950s quiz-show winner), who follows Zuckennan around, who wants advice on his own writing, and who later makes phone-threats about kidnapping Zuckerman's mother (with a final explosion of envious rage). This black comedy, however—with its variations on the theme of celebrity—is less important than (and only tenuously linked to) the novel's real center: again, as in The Ghost Writer, the human costs of being an artist. Zuckerman's mother, who is not a Mrs. Portnoy, doesn't know what to do when "People say to me—and right out, without a second thought—'I didn't know you were crazy like that, Selma.'" And Zuckerman's father, on his deathbed, delivers (with a follow-up from Zuckerman's brother) a totally devastating retort to "artistic license" and "writer's freedom." True, these moments are powerful. But, unlike the very similar bus-stop scene in The Ghost Writer, these new family scenes derive so much of their power from specific, well-known autobiographical reference points that the novel is thrown off balance: the fact/fiction seams show, the farce/ tragedy gear-shifts grind. Moreover, Roth's page-by-page craft wobbles a bit: a romantic sequence with an actress is pallid; the themes are spelled out too often, too heavy-handedly; and there are even patches of banal, sentimental, highly un-Roth-like prose. So, though there's much that's engaging here—the superb dialogue, the deft comedy, the mostly seductive narration, the titillating recognition-factors for Portnoy's Complaint readers—those who responded to the subtler, fable-like connections of The Ghost Writer will be sorely disappointed by this much cruder, less daring, and largely redundant sequel.

Pub Date: June 1, 1981

ISBN: 0679748997

Page Count: 225

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1981

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

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SUCH A FUN AGE

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.

DEAR EDWARD

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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