I loved this book. I was tempted by my all-caps key, to talk about LOVE, but I've been tossing around rave reviews so frequently I worry that the caps will further undermine my authority, make me seem all squishy and pliable, a cheap date, an easy mark. I'm not, I swear! LaValle earns it, baby.
Late in the novel, a character (Ms. Adele Henry) seeks information on the novel's (many) strange events from an expert at the Garland Folklore Society, and finds the building a bit discombobulated, the Garland Historical Society taking over one floor, uneasily and messily co-habiting. And all this set-up allows LaValle to toss out a throwaway line as Henry and expert "reached the stairs and ascended from history into folklore." The novel plays on that stairwell, too: wannabe-ex junkie/janitor Ricky Rice receives a strange invitation with unexpected knowledge of his hidden past, and he heads off to rural Vermont, where he is initiated into a secret society founded by a runaway slave who heard the Voice (of God?). This society, now populated by a group of Unlikely Scholars (addicts, ex-prostitutes, the desolate and despised), is charged with investigating paranormal events, trying to hear that Voice again. However, one rogue Scholar is out inciting terrorist resistance to the (secret but also the American) society, and Ricky is enlisted to find this guy, and then . . . and, and, and: the novel's a wealth of dense, exuberant semi-mythological quasi-historical showboating. What the kids are calling slipstream, maybe, and I saw traces of Stephen King as well as Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan and Lewis Carroll, a healthy dose of Hurston and Ellison and Octavia Butler. It's got monsters, a couple cults, hardboiled sleuthing, mean-streets social realism, deep lovely wondering about the role of faith and doubt... I'd call it sui generis but maybe it's more apt to say suite generis: Big Machine
exploits all sorts of American literatures, explores all kinds of nooks and crannies. It's a big novel. LaValle notes of preachers that they love "to channel the ecstatic much more than motivating the mild," and he may as well be writing about certain authors, himself included, or about American culture. It's loopy, exaggerated, lived-in, precise: a tall tale grounded in historical pain, an account of impoverished life caught up in the Fantastic. History, folklore: an ecstatic eruption of stories and meaning.
It's also a generous novel: with a gripping story, gripping in both the "shit-oh-no-what-now" and the "wrenching-emotional-connection" senses, with villainy that is empathically detailed and heroism that is painfully inept and flawed. (Ricky notes that if he or Adele have to "serve up any heroics, we'd be baking them from scratch.")
As that last parenthetical citation might suggest--and I'm tempted here to copy a compendium of choice phrases and lines--like all of this author's previous stuff, it's funny when it's not utterly sad, and vice versa. I'll let Ricky's voice close, a paragraph not central to the plot but illustrative of LaValle's gifts:
For people who've never shot up or snorted or smoked heroin, it can be hard to understand the allure. Catch sight of a man or woman whose arms are purple from old needle bites, look at the sunken face of a longtime user, how could anyone want to end up that way? But that's like passing a car accident and wondering why anyone, anywhere, drives. Don't focus on the mishaps; consider the pleasures instead. Taking heroin is like sinking into a tapioca hammock. If that doesn't sound good, then congratulations, you will not enjoy heroin. May I suggest cocaine?