Sentence by sentence, it's smooth, even vivid—but the grossly overextended whole adds up to good writing wasted on an...

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HOW THE DEAD LIVE

There's a lot of abusive palaver and not much substance in this labored third novel from the punk-surrealist author of Cock and Bull (1993), Great Apes (1997), and other fetchingly deranged assaults on good taste, convention, and stuff like that.

One wants to admire an imagination that could conceive of this novel's afterlife—a rundown hinterland in which the dead hold jobs and intermingle more or less normally by the living-as experienced by its foul-mouthed narrator Lily Bloom (James Joyce is surely spinning peevishly in his grave), an American woman who dies of cancer in a London hospital. But Lily simply rattles on and on, about her two daughters, uptight Charlotte (who's infertile) and cokehead-whore Natasha ("Natty," who's anything but); her many marital and extra-curricular sexual frolics; the State of the World, as encapsulated in odd little throwaway observations ("Saddam invaded Kuwait and my girls indulged their own cravings"); and—most curiously—her relationship before and after death with fellow patient Phar Lap Jones, an affable aborigine (named after his country-creature, a famed racehorse) who covets Lily's false teeth, for which he bargains, promising to ferry her safely out of the land of the living. A few cheeky inventions amuse intermittently (sex is still available even after one has passed on, though Lily wryly notes that "live johns were numb to the dead hookers' insubstantiality"), but there simply isn't enough of a plot to justify even two hundred and fifty pages' worth of this jaded mockery. Nor is Lily much fun: she's a bundle of indignations, whose high-pitched rants accommodate far too many lame anti-Semitic gags (of course she's a Jew herself, so we're probably supposed to see the humor in her continual recourse to such conversational bytes as "D'jew know?" and "Mindjew").

Sentence by sentence, it's smooth, even vivid—but the grossly overextended whole adds up to good writing wasted on an underimagined and tiresome premise.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-8021-1671-X

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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