CLOUDSPLITTER

An inordinately ambitious portrayal of the life and mission of abolitionist John Brown, from the veteran novelist whose previous fictional forays into American history include The New World (1978) and The Relation of My Imprisonment (not reviewed). Banks's story takes the form of a series of lengthy letters written, 40 years after Brown's execution, by his surviving son Owen in response to the request of a professor (himself a descendant of William Lloyd Garrison) who is planning a biography of the antislavery martyr. Owen's elaborate tale, frequently interrupted by digressive analyses of his own conflicted feelings about his family's enlistment in their father's cause, traces a pattern of family losses and business failings that seemed only to heighten ``the Old Man's'' fervent belief that he had been chosen by God to lead the slaves to freedom. As we observe the increasingly wrathful actions of Brown, his sons, and his followers, Banks patiently reveals and explores the motivations that will lead to their involvement with the Underground Railroad, the bloody slaughter (by Brown's self-proclaimed ``Army of the North'') of ``pro-slave settlers'' in Kansas, and finally the fateful attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. In many ways, this is very impressive fiction—obviously a painstakingly researched one, with a genuine understanding of both the particulars and the attitudes of its period. The slowly building indirect characterization of ``Father Abraham, making his terrible, final sacrifice to his God'' has some power. But Owen's redundant agonies of conscience (especially regarding his sexual naivetÇ) grow tiresome, and the novel is enormously overlong (e.g., Banks gives us the full nine-page text of a sermon Brown preaches, comparing himself to Job). Cloudsplitter will undoubtedly be much admired. But it penetrates less convincingly into the enigma of John Brown than did a novel half its length, Leonard Ehrlich's God's Angry Man, published 60 years ago. Once again, sadly, Banks's reach has exceeded his grasp. ($125,000 ad/promo; author tour)

Pub Date: March 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-06-016860-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1997

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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