HUMBOLDT'S GIFT

As a critic once observed: "The language is the character and the action. To say that Herzog is written in the first person would be like saying that Genesis is written in the first person. The voice is the whole case; it contains everything." Even if, as now, we sometimes stop listening. And even if—to take it a step further—the character is always to a large degree Bellow, while the action (let him describe it) is "cantankerous erroneous silly and delusive objects actions and phenomena." In two words, energized chaos. Humboldt, he of the gift, was a "culture-Jew," poet, trickster, genius with a passionate gift of gab and intellectual grandiloquence. He was also a noble man who had attained prominence in the '40's only later to decline not only in terms of fame but physically. Humboldt, with his gin, pills, and his own innate highs and lows of increasing intensity, was institutionalized in Bellevue toward the end and finally dropped dead, alone, in a seedy hotel. His protege, heir and bloodbrother is Charlie Citrine who tells this so-called story: Citrine who wins a Pulitzer and also knows the "glory and gold" which attend success; Citrine who has been divorcing his wife for a beautiful girl who pussywhips him; Citrine who becomes involved with a second-string underworld godson and all kinds of manipulative shenanigans; Citrine who gyrates all around the world; Citrine who is left the "gift"—an outline for a movie script which will net a great deal of that gold. Throughout of course there are some of Bellow's central concerns: the sense of destiny which is never far from the abyss; that "for self-realization it's necessary to embrace the deformity and absurdity of the inmost being (we know it's there!)" and Humboldt knew better than anyone that it is there; that light—light which is talent or inspiration or gift—receding in the last years when "the dark turned darker" and death becomes an almost daily presence. Bellow writes continually in the recognition of approaching death—both seriously and less so. There's a marvelous piece on our burial malpractices down to "short sheeting" with the legs up. But Humboldt/Citrine/Bellow, however well he talks, talks too much. The novel sprawls in a picaresque fashion without the humor of Herzog or the humanity of that nice Mr. Sammler. Still if one is left with ""a kind of light-in-the-being"" that can overcome the terminal terror, it will represent underachiever Humboldt's great achievement.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 1975

ISBN: 0140189440

Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1975

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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