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STORIES FROM THE TENANTS DOWNSTAIRS

A potentially significant voice in African American fiction asserts itself with wit and compassion.

Eight interconnected stories set in a low-income Harlem high rise give faces, voices, and meaning to lives otherwise neglected or marginalized.

The Banneker Terrace housing complex doesn’t actually exist at present-day 129th Street and Frederick Douglass Avenue in Harlem. But the stories assembled in this captivating debut collection feel vividly and desperately authentic in chronicling diverse African American residents of Banneker poised at crossroads in their overburdened, economically constrained lives. In “The Okiedoke,” a 25-year-old man named Swan is excited about the release of his friend Boons from prison; maybe too excited given that an illegal scheme they’re hatching could endanger the fragile but peaceful life he’s established with Mimi, the mother of his child, who’s been struggling to balance waitressing at Roscoe’s restaurant with doing hair on the side. Helping her learn the hairdressing trade is Dary, the “gay dude” in apartment 12H, who, in “Camaraderie,” goes over-the-top in his obsession with a pop diva by getting too close to her for her comfort. “Ms. Dallas” may well be the collection’s most caustically observant and poignantly tender story; the title character, Verona Dallas, besides being Swan’s mother, works as a paraprofessional at the neighborhood’s middle school while working nights “at the airport doin’ security.” Her testimony focuses mostly on the exasperating dynamics of her day job and the compounding misperceptions between the White Harvard-educated English teacher to whom she’s been assigned and the unruly class he’s vainly trying to interest in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (The keen perceptions and complex characterizations in this story may be attributed to the fact that its author works as a teacher in New York City’s public schools.) All these stories are told in the first-person voices of their protagonists and thus rely on urban Black dialect that may put off some readers at first, with the frequent colloquial use of the N-word and other idiomatic expressions. But those willing to use their ears more than their eyes to read along will find a rich, ribald, and engagingly funny vein of verbal music, as up-to-the-minute as hip-hop, but as rooted in human verities as Elizabethan dialogue. The publisher compares this book to Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. One could also invoke James Joyce’s Dubliners in the stories’ collective and multilayered evocation of place, time, and people.

A potentially significant voice in African American fiction asserts itself with wit and compassion.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-982145-81-1

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 7, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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LONG ISLAND

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

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An acclaimed novelist revisits the central characters of his best-known work.

At the end of Brooklyn (2009), Eilis Lacey departed Ireland for the second and final time—headed back to New York and the Italian American husband she had secretly married after first traveling there for work. In her hometown of Enniscorthy, she left behind Jim Farrell, a young man she’d fallen in love with during her visit, and the inevitable gossip about her conduct. Tóibín’s 11th novel introduces readers to Eilis 20 years later, in 1976, still married to Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbia with their two teenage children. But Eilis’ seemingly placid existence is disturbed when a stranger confronts her, accusing Tony of having an affair with his wife—now pregnant—and threatening to leave the baby on their doorstep. “She’d known men like this in Ireland,” Tóibín writes. “Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.” This shock sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy for a visit—or perhaps a longer stay. (Eilis’ motives are as inscrutable as ever, even to herself.) She finds the never-married Jim managing his late father’s pub; unbeknownst to Eilis (and the town), he’s become involved with her widowed friend Nancy, who struggles to maintain the family chip shop. Eilis herself appears different to her old friends: “Something had happened to her in America,” Nancy concludes. Although the novel begins with a soap-operatic confrontation—and ends with a dramatic denouement, as Eilis’ fate is determined in a plot twist worthy of Edith Wharton—the author is a master of quiet, restrained prose, calmly observing the mores and mindsets of provincial Ireland, not much changed from the 1950s.

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

Pub Date: May 7, 2024

ISBN: 9781476785110

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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