Dybek has become his generation’s Nelson Algren. That’s no small achievement.

I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN

A crowded, episodic novel-in-stories portrays life in a multiethnic midwestern urban enclave pretty much as did Dybek’s memorable story collections (The Coast of Chicago, 1990, etc.).

The scene is Chicago’s fictional “Little Village,” and the focal character (who doesn’t appear in all 11 stories, is Perry Katzek, whom we first encounter in the opening story “Song.” Here, he’s a precocious crooner employed by his Uncle “Lefty” Antic (Korean War vet, self-taught musician, and drunk) to perform at Lefty’s favorite wateringholes, for drinks (bourbon for uncle, root beer for nephew). We also eavesdrop on Perry’s loving rivalry and mischievous collusion with his extroverted younger brother Mick (a day at a nearby beach in “Undertow,” first intimations of adolescent sexuality and premature death in “Blue Boy”). Other tales relate Perry’s efforts to earn a better-late-than-never high-school diploma, while abetting his buddy Stosh’s harebrained scheme to grow and sell “Orchids” (in Chicago, yet); live by himself, become a writer, and plumb the mysteries of womanhood (“Lunch at the Loyola Arms”); and, in a graceful concluding story-coda (“Je Reviens”), pursue a vision of beauty that’s as elusive and deceptive as are most of his other dreams. Uncle Lefty reappears, during his hallucinatory final days, in “A Minor Mood.” And Mick, grown into a professional actor and compulsive vagrant, revisits the old neighborhood where his “ever-fomenting theories that life was essentially about playing roles” were formed, in “Qué Quieres.” Good as these tales are, they’re dwarfed by the aforementioned “Blue Boy,” in which the embryonic writer in Perry responds to early emotional and intellectual challenges; and by the superb novella “Breasts,” a tightly plotted little nightmare depicting the fateful collisions of a mob hit man preoccupied with encountered and remembered images of old girlfriends, a stoical Little Village entrepreneur, and a cross-dressing retired pro wrestler working as a store security cop.

Dybek has become his generation’s Nelson Algren. That’s no small achievement.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-374-17407-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2003

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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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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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