The Nobel laureate's first full-length novel in more than a decade (since More Die of Heartbreak, 1987) is a pungent intellectual drama that's short on plot but contains some of the sharpest, most provocative writing of his long and honorable career. The narrator, identified only as "Chick," is an elderly writer who relates—in a vigorous mixture of narrative, speculation, and reminiscence that sparkles with zesty combative dialogue—the story of his friendship with (the somewhat younger) Abe Ravelstein, a charismatic professor of political science who has become an international celebrity mage ("He interpreted Rousseau to the French, Machiavelli to the Italians, et cetera"), and authored an inexplicably bestselling "summa" of his ideas. Ravelstein, homosexual and dying of AIDS, has urged Chick to write a memoir of him. Their lives are intertwined in various ways (Chick's young second wife Rosamund, for example, was Ravelstein’s prize student). But Chick is conflicted, knowing how much they also differ: he’s a receiver of sensory impressions, an ontological observer for whom the physical world is a gift we spend our lives unwrapping; Ravelstein is an unregenerate theorist who insists men live guided by "rational principles" (despite overpowering evidence of his sensual appetite). Only after Ravelstein's death, when Chick himself nearly dies from a perversely "accidental" neurological illness, does the acolyte (for such he surely is) come closer to understanding the extent to which his hectoring "teacher" has also been his scourge, Platonic "other half" (seeking union), and conscience. Bellow tangles these lives and worldviews together brilliantly, in an essentially static drama that vibrates with paradoxical wit and submerged (though almost physically intense) feeling. It's mostly talk—but what talk! This is a novel that grabs you by the neck and forces you to think, and rewards you with a dazzling insight or superbly turned phrase or sentence on virtually every page. The work of a master, who has lost none of his unique ability to entertain, enthrall, and enlighten.

Pub Date: April 24, 2000

ISBN: 0-670-84134-X

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2000

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

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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.


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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