Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Luster: A Brutal, Brilliant, Hilarious Debut about Race, Sex, and Manners

I'll read just about anything Zadie Smith calls "brutal and brilliant," which is how she blurbed Raven Leilani's debut novel, Luster. And she's certainly not wrong. 

It's brutal in its honesty — "unflinching," as the review cliché goes. The novel is about a young Black woman, trying to make her way through love, life, sex, career, and being Black in modern day New York. Sometimes, this narrator, Edie, seems totally overmatched by life, relationships (which she happens to be in with a much-older married man), and not being totally awkward all the time. Other times, however, she seems preternaturally self-aware and understands exactly why the forces seemingly beyond her control are...beyond her control.

And it's brilliant in that on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, this is one the best written novels I've read this year. Leilani's prose is witty and wise, often laugh-out-loud funny, but also profoundly keen and perceptive. It's so much fun to read.

So yes, Edie, our 23-year-old narrator, embarks on an affair with a married middle-aged white guy named Eric. But it's cool — he's in an open marriage, and through a series of odd machinations (job loss, eviction, some light stalking), Edie actually winds up living at his house in the suburbs with his wife Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter named Akila. It's not the most comfortable living situation, to say the least, but it gives Edie occasion to do what she once thought she was destined for: art. Against all odds, her new suburban home, albeit extremely temporary, inspires her to paint. 

Edie's interactions and relationships with both Rebecca and Akila are really fascinating and well-rendered. Rebecca oddly tolerates her and actually wants to help her, even though she's sleeping with her husband. With the pre-teen Akila, Edie subtly helps mentor her in the ways of Black womanhood. 

Of course, this arrangement can't last, but will it come crashing down in spectacular flames? You'll probably read this novel so quickly, the end will sneak up on you before you even know it.

Comparisons between Luster and another huge hit this year, Kiley Reid's Such A Fun Age, are inevitable. Both are about what it's like to be young and Black, and struggling against a stacked deck. Luster, however, is a bit edgier, a bit more...unconventional. They're both fantastic debut novels so far be it from me to say one is better than the other. I'd highly recommend both. And I'd highly recommend keeping a close eye on Leilani's career — if Luster is any indication, we can expect big things. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Deacon King Kong: Storytelling At Its Absolute Finest

Here we have storytelling at its absolute finest, funniest, sharpest, wittiest, and just downright most fun. James McBride's new novel Deacon King Kong is about a lot of things: Drug dealers, treasure hunts, race, ghosts, and some really mysterious cheese (known as the Jesus Cheese). But you never feel overwhelmed. Rather, you just feel incredibly entertained the whole way. 

The novel's about an old drunk named Sportcoat who lives in a housing project in Brooklyn. He spends most of his time drinking homemade booze (he's dubbed it King Kong) and palling around with his buddy Hot Sausage. The year is 1969, and the mob controls the projects, heroin is the new big thing, and mostly everyone distrusts anyone outside their own race. 

The novel kicks off with drunken Sportcoat trying to assassinate the projects' drug dealer in broad daylight. The dealer is a dude named Deems who was a promising baseball star that Sportcoat himself had coached and mentored, so no one has any idea why Sportcoat did it. And that includes Sportcoat himself, who, when the dust settles, actually has no memory of trying to shoot the kid. He denies he even did it — even though he's now in pretty grave danger of some serious retribution.

And it goes from there. Soon, an Italian mobster named Elefante (because of course he's named the Elephant) gets involved, and through a series of maneuverings, the story morphs into a sort of treasure hunt for a priceless statue. How is Sportcoat involved in this? He's mixed up in everything, often unwittingly. And he's often totally overmatched for the circumstances, yet somehow still bumbles along. (There are some HIGH comedy moments when the mobsters send a hit man to rub out Sportcoat...and these attempts always go awry.)  

Simply put, this is a rollicking, ebullient novel, but with a dead serious undercurrent of racism, race relations, and other issues of addiction and drug abuse. This is easily one of my favorite novels of the year. I loved it. In fact, I think I liked this one even better than McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which won him a National Book Award. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Sharks In The Time Of Saviors: Collision of the Old and the New

Hawaiian novels by Hawaiian writers aren't exactly a dime a dozen, so I was super excited to read this debut, Sharks In The Time Of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn. It's a fantastic family saga about Hawaiians caught between the old ways and the new, the eternal tension between tradition and modernity. It's also about the rivalries and jealousies between siblings — all fertile ground for literary fiction, for sure.
So what's the story? When Nainoa is a young boy, he falls over the side of a boat during a family vacation. He nearly drowns, but is miraculously rescued by a shark that cradles him in its jaws and delivers him safely back to the boat. Soon after, Nainoa discovers he has certain "healing" powers. His older brother Dean and younger sister Kaui become second-class citizens in the family as the parents dote upon the shy, reserved Nainoa. 

Kaui and Dean are both preternaturally talented too, but their talents are more "mundane" -- Dean is a superstar basketball player and gets a scholarship to a prestigious program in Spokane, Washington (it's Gonzaga, for anyone not up on college hoops and/or geography. Related side note: One of my only complaints about this novel is that Washburn gets a few things slightly wrong about college basketball, which, as a huge college basketball fan, was hard to abide. But back to the post.). Kaui is a brilliant student and gets a scholarship to study engineering at a university in San Diego. 

Nainoa, meanwhile, after going to Stanford, somehow flames out — he doesn't capitalize on his gifts. Or does he? We see him working as an EMT in Portland, Oregon, and still subtly and sort of secretly healing people in the back of the ambulance while they're transported to the hospital. That's until one really bad day when he's called to an accident, and a pregnant woman is near death, and he can't save her. This sends him into a downward spiral, and he winds up returning to Hawaii to try to get back in touch with his roots, the old ways, and the old gods. 

But then, Nainoa disappears while hiking on the Big Island. Dean and Kaui, deep into their own struggles with the modern world — Dean's been booted from his basketball team, and Kaui is harboring a huge unrequited crush on her female roommate — are summoned home to help find Nainoa.

The rest of the novel is about what happens after, as Dean and Kaui try to put their lives back together, to support each other, and to make begrudging amends with their parents, for whom they still harbor resentment for favoriting Nainoa over them. 

I loved this book -- Washburn is an immensely gifted writer, and beautifully seams a mix of Hawaiian tradition and the difficulties of making ends meet, the pressures of college, and much more. You may recall another terrific Hawaiian writer, Kaui Hart Hemmings, in her novel The Descendants (popularized by the George Clooney movie), dispensing with the notion that Hawaii is an unfettered paradise. This idea comes through in Washburn's novel as well, though in vastly different ways for the different characters — for the children, the modern world is what's difficult, and their Hawaiian home is the respite. The parents, though, are mostly happy, even in poverty...until they're not. And it's fascinating to see how all these characters strive to get back to their own individual notions of peace. This is a really terrific read — and I can't wait to see what Washburn does next! 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Glass Hotel: The Spaces Between

Emily St. John Mandel's novels are nothing if not prescient and timely. Her last novel, Station Eleven, one of my favorite novels of recent memory, is about life after a global pandemic. But more specifically, it's about how art makes us human.  

St. John Mandel's new novel titled The Glass Hotel is just as important for understanding our current moment. This story is about the spaces between — interstitial, liminal spaces — and how these spaces inform our human experiences. Now, as we're in a pandemic-created liminal space between the old normal and the new, this novel can offer important context. 

The story is about a woman named Vincent who works at a luxury hotel on a remote Canadian island. The hotel is owned by a rich guy named Jonathan Alkaitis, who uses the hotel to recruit investors for what we soon learn through jumps back and forth in time, is actually a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. 

Frankly, though, summarizing this plot is difficult, because of the time- and geography-jumps — and really the plot isn't the point. I mean, it's not hard to follow, but other than saying "it's about a Ponzi scheme and a hotel," you'll benefit anyway from knowing less about the details.

So, about those spaces between: Just about every aspect of this novel deals with some sort of liminal space — a hotel, a Ponzi scheme, the shipping industry, and many more. But one of the more fascinating parts of this novel, as it was in Station Eleven, is looking at art and inspiration, and the difference between true creativity and "borrowing" or building on someone else's inspiration. This isn't the main point of this novel this time, but to me, it was the most interesting one. 

It's also fascinating how St. John Mandel ties all these disparate elements over time, geography, and ostensible subject matter (what would international shipping have to do with avant-garde art outside of this novel?) into a really sharp, cohesive whole. As the saying goes, in the hands of a lesser novelist, this could've been a beautiful mess. But it's not. It's short, sweet, smart, and really entertaining. Fans of Station Eleven will no doubt find plenty to like here. I sure did. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Bubblegum: Adam Levin's Back, Is He Still the "New DFW"?

Remember Adam Levin? Ten years ago, he published a thousand-page, post-modern novel called The Instructions that earned him the mantle of the "next David Foster Wallace." Well, 10 years later, he's back with another digressive, massive, frustrating, hugely entertaining novel titled Bubblegum. Not much has changed: He's still up to his DFW-esque-ness here, having as much fun toying with his reader as he is actually telling a story. And he even winks at all those idiots (like me) who think he is the next DFW by including a brief snippet with a DFW-like character.

And but so (sorry), Bubblegum is a huge goofy smart novel about an alternate reality that looks just like ours, except there's no Internet and people have these little robotic pets called Curios. Our narrator is a fellow named Belt Magnet, and he is in his late 30s and lives with his drunk father, who likes to berate him for being a loser. Belt published one little-read novel a decade before but hasn't done anything since, except collect social security checks. Though in Belt's defense, he does have some issues — not the least of which is that he talks to inanimate objects...and they talk back. 

So we set sail on 780 pages of Belt telling us about his life — how his former best friend is now a global superstar, how he spends most of his time with his own Curio named Blank, his only real friend, and how he is basically rudderless, smoking a lot and wondering where things went wrong. 

But that sort of belies what Levin is really up to here. So...what is he really up to? Frankly, I don't have the slightest damn idea, other than to point out that we humans are infinitely weird, often disappointing, but never not interesting. We become obsessed with things, and these obsessions taking over our entire culture...and often common sense dies a slow, sad death along the way.

A lot of this novel — including an interminable 100 pages in the middle that's a transcript of a movie made up of a number of clips all about Curios —is about "Curio culture." Belt participated in a sort of pet-therapy experiment when he was a kid to try to help him with his mental issues. He became one of the first Curio owners, before they exploded in popularity and are used for everything from a club drug (you boil their bones and extract their marrow and it gets ya high!) to entertainment. 

And again, to tell this story, we get numerous digressions and expositions and page-long jokes, etc. These are almost always entertaining...except when they're not. And that's really the rub: A lot of this is massively fun, super smart, and frankly, awe-inspiring. But when it's not, it's frustrating and annoying as hell. 

So I could spend several more paragraphs telling you about some more of this plot but you'll probably decide to read this based on how willing you are to accept a certain degree of aggravation in your novels. If your answer to that is "zero aggravation," then this probably isn't the book for you. But if, like in some of DFW's work, you go into this knowing not every digression or two-page-long tangent will totally work, but many will, and the good outweighs the bad, then give Mr. Levin a try here. Hey, if nothing else, the cover is scratch-and-sniff, and literally smells like bubblegum. So that's fun!