Four Americans converge on a Central-American banana dictatorship called Tecan—and each of them is clearly ready for some internal shake-up. Frank Holliwell, an anthropologist suffering from anomie, has been invited down by the Tecan national university to give a lecture—and he's also been asked to do some snooping around by CIA buddies he'd known from Vietnam days. Pablo Tabor, a young paranoid speed-freak Coast-Guard deserter, has signed on aboard a gun-running boat set to deliver arms to Tecan rebels. Sister Justin Feeney, a young Devotionist nun, is about to be pulled from her Tecan coast dispensary by her order (she's a supporter of the rebels). And Father Egan, Justin's co-missionary, is a priest who's steadily more pickled with brandy and visions of the Demiurge and the Pleroma. These, four, in fact—the intellectual wimp adrift in history, the bad-news outcast, the tragically strong woman, the released-of-it-all gnostic—are pretty much the usual cast of a Stone novel (A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers): four compass points that themselves stagger under generally vicious circumstances. Stone's hallmark—scenes of menace—is on lavish display here too: corpses in freezers; a woman threatened with a gun at her head while frozen burgers are arranged around her supine body; at least three shipboard murders. And the violence seems very right, made inevitable by the tone of dark historical despair underlying everything. But whereas A Hall of Mirrors and, even more, Dog Soldiers spiked toward catharsis (novels as plotted as Stone's surely seem to demand one), here the fever-break is absent—with oddly ill-timed, often premature climaxes which make us feel like we're guttering instead of steadily climbing. True, there's no shortage of dramatic movements here: Holliwell and Sister Justin have a brief and mutually-embarrassing amour; there are truly awful murders, torture, a failed revolt, an exhaustion of motive. But the working-out of the story finally seems not much more cutting (only more hard-boiled) than the vector in a book like The Bridge at San Luis Rey (fate—and cynicism—bringing people together only to destroy them); and whole sections are fumbly, purple at times, contrived enough even to resort to an eavesdropping scene. And yet, all that said, this is also the work of a truly powerful, unduplicated voice. No American writer does crazy dangerous people better—perhaps because no American novelist finds the strain of pusillanimity in contemporary Americans quite as scary as Stone does: "Pablo took himself out on deck again, the anticipated clean clothes he carried were just a useless embarrassment now. He was nearly enraged. It was a hell of a thing not to get a shower when you wanted one. It was a bring-down. It made you negative." And, more agonized than even a Naipaul over history's black holes, Stone lights every page with the superiority of his prose: the great descending speed of his paragraphs, hipness turning ecclesiastical, the extraordinary cynical ventriloquisms of much of the dialogue. Writing on this sure a ad powerful level is not to be ignored—even when its container, as here, seems poorly weighted and subject to leaks.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 1981

ISBN: 0679737626

Page Count: 680

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981

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

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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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Offill is good company for the end of the world.


An ever growing list of worries, from a brother with drug problems to a climate change apocalypse, dances through the lively mind of a university librarian.

In its clever and seductive replication of the inner monologue of a woman living in this particular moment in history, Offill’s (Dept. of Speculation, 2014, etc.) third novel might be thought of as a more laconic cousin of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. Here, the mind we’re embedded in is that of a librarian named Lizzie—an entertaining vantage point despite her concerns big and small. There’s the lady with the bullhorn who won’t let her walk her sensitive young son into his school building. Her brother, who has finally gotten off drugs and has a new girlfriend but still requires her constant, almost hourly, support. Her mentor, Sylvia, a national expert on climate change, who is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. (“These people long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” says Sylvia.) “Malodorous,” “Defacing,” “Combative,” “Humming,” “Lonely”: These are just a few of the categories in a pamphlet called Dealing With Problem Patrons that Lizzie's been given at work, Also, her knee hurts, and she’s spending a fortune on car service because she fears she's Mr. Jimmy’s only customer. Then there are the complex mixed messages of a cable show she can't stop watching: Extreme Shopper. Her husband, Ben, a video game designer and a very kind man, is getting a bit exasperated. As the new president is elected and the climate change questions pour in and the doomsday scenarios pile up, Lizzie tries to hold it together. The tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor.

Offill is good company for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-35110-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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