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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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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