NO NEW JOKES

Debut fiction and poignant character study that captures the tone of Jewish life in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1949. Bloom brilliantly exploits the novel as a form by drawing on the simultaneity of film editing. Indeed, writers jealous of film's ability to juggle two or three separate scenes into one flow of images will wonder why no one else has tried this device since Jean-Paul Sartre's postwar novel Troubled Sleep, which elided scenes in midparagraph or midsentence. Here, Bloom uses the technique sparingly until the later chapters, which take off like the whoosh of the montages in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Paranoia about WW III blooms while Jews meet in Bald Sam's luncheonette and tell jokes (an aesthetic against racial pain). Izzy, a former boxer, has returned to Brownsville after fighting in Germany with the 39th Infantry. He has a head full of shrapnel, plus a disability pension, and fears that he's emotionally lobotomized (``I have the feeling whatever's happening, it's not really happening to me''); meanwhile, he lives off his disability, and sometimes plays his concertina in courtyards for coins and for contact with housewives. As a child in Poland, he memorized the complete fund of Jewish jokes told at his father's tavern. Then at ten, fleeing persecution and his father's murder, Izzy, his sister Miriam, and mother came to Depression Brownsville. His mother has since died, and his exhausted sister survives by running a tiny coffeeshop, where Izzy occasionally helps out. Izzy's older friend Meyer Woolf has been pushed by his wife to invite Izzy to dinner in order to meet Meyer's aging niece Celia, and the muted dinner is one of the stronger, more closely woven set-pieces here. Also rich are Izzy's dalliances with Maureen, an aging Irish whore, and with Mary, a librarian crazed by thoughts of the newly announced hydrogen bomb. Memories of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Joyce's Cyclops/bar scene in Ulysses. Not much seems to happen, but a memorable movie lies embedded in these haunting pages.

Pub Date: March 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-393-04047-X

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1997

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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