An elaborate morality play set among the cult of Southerners and their haunted landscapes.

THE CRAWFORD COUNTY SKETCHBOOK

Grotesque tales of the struggle between good and evil from a dark corner of the American heartland.

Poet and surrealist Janikowski (A Martini and a Pen, 2014, etc.) does his best Faulkner impression here, using a blend of baroque Southern classicism and redneck patois to fuel a portrait of his fictional Crawford County, a character-rich settlement somewhere in the rural South. The book is composed of three primary sections. The first is devoted to the death of Peter Switchback Jr., an honorable man and local farmer who is revealed in an obituary to have died an untimely death at the age of 43. Janikowski plays out the story of Switchback’s life and death in 36 vignettes told from the point of view of various denizens of the community. These largely forgettable characters are merely here to serve as the chorus in a play in which someone is as likely to ruminate on chicken-fried steak or goings-on at the local swimmin’ hole as to give insights into horrific farming accidents or tragic suicides. The novel does offer up a genuine black-hat villain in the person of Sheriff Cecil Morgan, a “damned stupid pus-jacketed skin-eater,” whose family members play the McCoys to the Switchbacks’ Hatfields in their longtime feud. The second novella-length section, “Wild Torrent,” falls closer to Of Mice and Men (1937) with its story of an altercation between two men on a farm, one that also ends badly for everyone involved. It all wraps up with a surrealist fiction about Ashley, the virtuous woman who loved Peter Switchback and longs to rewrite his sad ending. The novel’s exaggerated portrayals, distorted narrative threads, and flamboyant brand of Southern Gothic will ring the bells of a certain literary-minded audience, but more casual readers may find it a bit rich for their tastes.

An elaborate morality play set among the cult of Southerners and their haunted landscapes.

Pub Date: Aug. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59709-533-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Red Hen Press

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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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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