Too idea-hungry and haywire to be fully successful, too alive and abrasive to be missed. The multicultural novel has come of...


Lavalle (The Ecstatic, 2002, etc.) fractures all our tidy notions of how well-made fiction ought to behave in his singular tale of a bizarre quest that achieves apocalyptic fulfillment.

“Recovering” heroin addict and freelance criminal Ricky Rice encounters new temptations and challenges when he’s lured away from his nowhere janitorial job at the Utica, N.Y., bus station and transported to Vermont’s Northern Kingdom, to become part of an all-black group of petty crooks and whores at the Washburn Library, a forested compound founded by a runaway slave. Not resonant enough for you yet? Consider the resemblance of this novel’s plot to that of a classic American novel whose narrator-protagonist embarks on a perilous adventure, ignores a mad prophet’s warning and falls into the orbit of a deranged messiah prepared to sacrifice himself and his acolytes in a vengeful battle against the universe. Specifically, Ricky is enlisted as one of several “Unlikely Scholars” charged with researching paranormal phenomena and making connections between cosmic and historical injustices. His personal assignment: to travel to San Francisco, where Jim Jones–like extremist Solomon Clay is fomenting revolution—and ice the sucker. Further complications lurk in Ricky’s egregious past, for his worst sins have gone largely unpunished, despite the cleansing mayhem performed by a confrontational ur-feminist cult, the Washerwomen. Redemption may lurk in the eponymous Big Machine, explicitly defined as “Doubt [which] grinds up the delusions of women and men.” But there’s another Big Machine hovering in a physician’s office that partially explains the burden of guilt hanging like an albatross around Ricky’s neck. Further developments include the miracle of Ricky’s pregnancy (honestly); the suggestion that the Devil lives in California; and a hellacious climax set in San Francisco Bay that explicitly echoes the Shakespearean finale of Moby Dick.

Too idea-hungry and haywire to be fully successful, too alive and abrasive to be missed. The multicultural novel has come of age—smashingly.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-385-52798-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2009

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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