Horror and history rendered with gusto and buckets of blood.

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SMONK

No one is safe in a 19th-century Alabama town devastated by the Civil War, gripped by a hideously perverted religion and haunted by rabies.

Maintaining the dark tone of his excellent first novel, Hell at the Breech (2003), Franklin goes for the gothic in a weirdly fascinating and minimally punctuated tale of evil personified. The nexus of it all seems to be E.O. Smonk, a syphilitic and (despite his resemblance to a snuff-dipping orangutan) sexually irresistible murderer, who opens the story by walking into a kangaroo court that the town of Old Texas has arranged for his trial and blowing away the mob ready to lynch him. Not that he was ever in any real danger. Smonk had stationed a backup team with a refined, brutally powerful machine gun outside the hotel-turned-courthouse; he had bribed the judge; he was armed to the teeth even after disposing of several sidearms at the courtroom door; the bailiff is a former sidekick. Smonk does suffer one loss: the mule he rode in on. The bailiff’s young son William, paid to watch the beast, rides the mule away from the melee in panicked grief, believing that his father had been among those killed. William wanders until he takes up with Evavangeline, a teenaged whore with no last name who is being pursued by Christian Deputy Phail Walton. Captain Walton, a Philadelphian whose repressions have made him very nearly mad as a hatter, has somehow talked a troupe of men into joining his cause, an action they will find disastrous. All of them cross the path of the dying Smonk, who is on his own quest to find out why there are no children or dogs in Old Texas, and what the creepy widows have been up to.

Horror and history rendered with gusto and buckets of blood.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-084681-X

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

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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