A memorable portrait of a bizarre but credible marriage teetering between hope and despair.

HARPSONG

A young man, his teenaged wife and his harmonica crisscross the Depression-era Southwest in Askew’s mournful, compelling, religion-infused third novel.

Sharon Thompson may be only 14, but as soon as mysterious stranger Harlan Singer appears in her small town of Cookson, Okla., she knows they are destined to mate. The self-named Harlan may be part Cherokee, but what’s for sure is his genius with the harmonica, or harp—he’s a veritable Pied Piper. He so charms Sharon’s dirt-poor parents (her Daddy is a traveling preacher) that they give him work. But work doesn’t agree with Harlan. After an almighty ruckus, Harlan whisks Sharon away to Muskogee, where they marry; they honeymoon atop a freight car, for Harlan has been riding the rails for years; Sharon, “ignorant as pudding,” realizes she doesn’t know her husband at all. Still, she shows spirit as they navigate the hobo jungles and run from the bulls, i.e., railroad detectives. Harlan is searching for Profit, his spiritual mentor, a smelly old hobo who once saved his life, but his search is as hopeless as Sharon’s for her family, since on their return to Cookson, her home is deserted; bank foreclosures have doomed the town. The past is unrecoverable; that is one of the novel’s themes, along with responsibility to our fellow man, also addressed in Askew’s Fire in Beulah (2001). Harlan, as retribution, robs the local bank and becomes the stuff of legend, though he later returns the money, for he and Sharon are religious folks, caught in a cycle of sin and the quest for redemption. Askew skillfully weaves their personal dramas (a miscarriage, Harlan’s fearsome beating by the bulls) with the communal hardships of the Depression; through it all floats the sound of Harlan’s harmonica, mesmerizing his listeners. Only toward the end does Askew’s control falter, when a stormy courthouse occupation by miners’ families detracts from the young couple’s ever-changing relationship.

A memorable portrait of a bizarre but credible marriage teetering between hope and despair.

Pub Date: May 30, 2007

ISBN: 0-8061-3823-8

Page Count: 246

Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2007

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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