GOING UNDER

Luvaas (The Seductions of Natalie Bach, 1986) takes the story of a family in dysfunctional breakdown and muddies it terribly through the use of different narrators. Aunt Debbie speaks first, diving into an incoherent story about flooding rains when she and her sister Jerri were younger. The rest of the cast is introduced in rapid succession: Jerri's philandering husband, Don; Don's son Olson, from a previous marriage; and Jerri and Don's children, Meena and Jeff. Debbie, Meena, and Jeff then trade off narratives (although Meena's are in the third person), often repeating the same stories without adding any new insight. Jerri is quickly losing her mind and falling deeper into drinking. Don is casual enough about his wife's decline to leave a message for Debbie (a stewardess) that reads ``CALL URGENT. JERRI'S FLIPPED. LOVE, DON'' and to make crude passes at his sister-in-law. (``My half-brother, Olson, claimed Dad finger- jobbed Aunt Debbie,'' Jeff reports.) Meena begins losing her mind and believes that she is a spider. Even a stint at Tranquility Acres can't dry Jerri out completely. The family moves from Oregon to California, but nothing much changes, and hints of sexual abuse in the past and the present—including a false accusation—barely move the plot along. The language used by all the characters sounds inauthentic: Debbie has a fondness for unnatural expressions like ``shit crystals''; Jerri's dialogue is awkwardly written to convey slurring (``Don' you ged it?''); and Meena favors slang like ``retro'' and ``weirdso-nerdso.'' Luvaas seems to want to confuse. At one point he has Olson befriend a boy named Olsen so that readers need constantly to recall which is which. In one of the few bits of outside context given, Jerri is described wearing a ``Jackie Kennedy suit,'' so this is presumably set in the 1960s. But this is an insular, claustrophobic tale told in choppy sentences by an author who takes sophomoric delight in silly, dirty language. Hard to follow and hard to swallow.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 1994

ISBN: 0-399-13968-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1994

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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