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.