A meandering, comically flat sendup of higher education.

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POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE

Cobb’s farcical novel explores the sexually dysfunctional dynamics of a college campus.

Lily Putnam just began writing her dissertation on Toni Morrison and lands a job as an instructor in an English department at Lakewood College, a small liberal arts college hidden in the outskirts of the Florida Panhandle. She’s a striking beauty and enjoys flaunting it. Lily quickly finds herself well-hunted erotic quarry—she begins a casual sexual relationship with Brasfield Finch, the department’s writer-in-residence, and something even more fleeting with the aggressive but impotent department chair, Rufus Doublet. She even sleeps with a 19-year-old sophomore jock, David Godby, who is as strikingly handsome as he is numbingly stupid. Meanwhile, Finch is incensed to learn that the college is spending a small fortune to bring Lenora Hart—a famous novelist—to campus to speak. He had a brief fling with her 15 years ago and detests the book that won her near universal adulation as well as wealth. He tries to block her visitation, but President Steagall is able to blackmail him into quiescence—Finch has a reputation on campus as an alcoholic who routinely shirks his professional duties. The plot swings uneasily between erotic frivolity and savage sexual assault—the campus is beleaguered by student streakers and then is embroiled in potential legal action when a freshman is gang-raped by the members of a popular men’s social club.  Cobb (Sweet Home: Stories of Alabama, 2013, etc.) was a writer-in-residence at Alabama’s University of Montevallo for over a decade and displays a keen grasp of the comic absurdity of campus politics. He also imaginatively conjures an eccentric cast, including a racist dean who falls in love with Lily almost upon first sight, and a local priest, Hamner Curbs, who is a closeted and shockingly reckless sexual predator. The plot, however, is plodding and aimless, a narratively peripatetic amble from one vaudevillian moment to the next. The story is built around Lily, who seems shallowly defined by her erotic power. The reader learns virtually nothing about her, her background, or why she chose literature as a profession. She rarely speaks about books or art or shows any abiding interest in either. In fact, no one in the English department seems all that keen to discuss literature, though there’s never a deficit of interest in prurient gossip. Also, the attempts at humor are more ribald than funny, and the descriptions of numerous sexual encounters in the work manage to be both peculiar and banal. For example, Finch lands himself in hot water after an indiscreet remark during a writing workshop, requesting a female student revise a story she wrote starring her cat. He jokes: “Re-write your story, Miss Carlton, and give us some conflict and resolution. Don’t just tell us, but show us. Then we, the readers, will love your pussy, too, so much we’ll want to kiss it.” 

A meandering, comically flat sendup of higher education.

Pub Date: May 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60489-203-1

Page Count: 226

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: March 12, 2018

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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