A tragedy thrusts a mourning father into peculiar, otherworldly corners of New York City.
When Apollo and Emma have their baby, Brian, it feels like both reward and challenge for the new dad. Apollo, the son of a single mother, had been scraping by as a bookseller who hunts estate and garage sales for rare first editions, so even the unusual circumstance of Brian's birth (in a stalled subway train) seems like a blessing, as does the way Apollo stumbles across a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird (inscribed by Harper Lee to Truman Capote, no less) shortly after. But after some young-parent squabbles and inexplicable images on their smartphones foreshadow trouble, the story turns nightmarish: Apollo finds himself tied up and beaten by Emma, then forced to listen to the sounds of Brian’s murder. LaValle has a knack for blending social realism with genre tropes (The Ballad of Black Tom, 2012, etc.), and this blend of horror story and fatherhood fable is surprising and admirably controlled. Though the plot is labyrinthine, it ultimately connects that first edition (“It’s just a story about a good father, right?”), Emma’s motivations, and the fate of their son, with enough room to contemplate everyday racism, the perils of personal technology, and the bookselling business as well. Built on brief, punchy chapters, the novel frames Apollo’s travels as a New York adventure tale, taking him from the basements of the Bronx to a small island in the East River that’s become a haven for misfit families to a seemingly sleepy neighborhood in Queens that’s the center of the story’s malevolence. But though the narrative takes Apollo to “magical places, where the rules of the world are different,” he’s fully absorbed the notion that fairy tales are manifestations of our deepest real-world anxieties. In that regard, LaValle has successfully delivered a tale of wonder and thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a parent.
A smart and knotty merger of horror, fantasy, and realism.