Magical realism works great for some authors, but Lipsyte ends up closer to the ending of the television show Lost than to...

HARK

A reluctant messiah inspires people to focus in a time of chaos.

Lipsyte (The Fun Parts: Stories, 2012, etc.) assembles a motley ensemble for his first novel since The Ask (2010) put him squarely on America’s literary map, but it’s mostly a sour, disaffecting experience that’s reflective of our troubled times. The novel’s central character is a guru-light type named Hark Morner who preaches a New Age–y discipline called “Mental Archery,” a goofy combination of mindfulness, made-up history, some yoga, and visualizations based around archery. Unfortunately, Lipsyte assembles his story through the point of view of the supporting characters, most of whom are miserable misanthropes when they’re not around Hark. The author’s primary avatar is Frank “Fraz” Penzig, whose primary characteristics are being the “old guy” at 46 years old, locked in a miserable, combative marriage with his wife, Tovah, and father to two kids. Also floating around is their patron, Kate Rumpler, who’s a felon due to having offed her pervert uncle and supremely rich since her parents crashed their private plane, and Teal Baker-Cassini, the intellectual who lends Hark’s harebrained discipline some credibility. There are no real villains here, barring the tech titan who wants to commercialize Hark’s movement and a weird cult that shows up late in the game to oppose it. As usual, Lipsyte’s command of language is sublime—Hark’s directive to “Actuate the world” could come straight out of the Silicon Valley parodies that are so prolific lately—but the dubious premise and deeply unlikable characters sour the already-tart satire that the author is proposing. The book has its twists: After Hark has a meltdown in St. Louis and one of the cast members suffers a potentially heartbreaking grievance, there’s an opportunity to shift the narrative to a more believable scenario, but instead the story descends into its own sad, inevitable stew of nonsense.

Magical realism works great for some authors, but Lipsyte ends up closer to the ending of the television show Lost than to any substantial prosecution of contemporary society.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-4606-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact.

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THE NIGHT WATCHMAN

In this unhurried, kaleidoscopic story, the efforts of Native Americans to save their lands from being taken away by the U.S. government in the early 1950s come intimately, vividly to life.

Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau was part of the first generation born on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. As the chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in the mid-1950s, he had to use all the political savvy he could muster to dissuade Utah Sen. Arthur V. Watkins (whom Erdrich calls a “pompous racist” in her afterword) from reneging on long-held treaties between Native Americans and the federal government. Erdrich's grandfather is the inspiration for her novel’s protagonist, Thomas Wazhushk, the night watchman of the title. He gets his last name from the muskrat, "the lowly, hardworking, water-loving rodent," and Thomas is a hard worker himself: In between his rounds at a local factory, at first uncertain he can really help his tribe, he organizes its members and writes letters to politicians, "these official men with their satisfied soft faces," opposing Watkins' efforts at "terminating" their reservation. Erdrich reveals Thomas' character at night when he's alone; still reliable and self-sacrificing, he becomes more human, like the night he locks himself out of the factory, almost freezes to death, and encounters a vision of beings, "filmy and brightly indistinct," descending from the stars, including Jesus Christ, who "looked just like the others." Patrice Paranteau is Thomas' niece, and she’s saddled with a raging alcoholic father and financial responsibility for her mother and brother. Her sister, Vera, deserts the reservation for Minneapolis; in the novel’s most suspenseful episode, Patrice boldly leaves home for the first time to find her sister, although all signs point to a bad outcome for Vera. Patrice grows up quickly as she navigates the city’s underbelly. Although the stakes for the residents of Turtle Mountain will be apocalyptic if their tribe is terminated, the novel is more an affectionate sketchbook of the personalities living at Turtle Mountain than a tightly plotted arc that moves from initial desperation to political triumph. Thomas’ boyhood friend Roderick returns as a ghost who troubles Thomas in his night rounds, for example; Patrice sleeps close to a bear and is vastly changed; two young men battle for Patrice’s heart.

A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-267118-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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