Big Machine by Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle provides one of the most seductive openings among the 2010 Tournament of Books contenders. This is no small accomplishment.

Ricky Rice is a janitor at Union Station in a Utica, New York when his boss hands him an envelope that contains a bus ticket to Vermont and a note. The note reads:

You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002.
Time to honor it.

Ricky leaves his job and takes the bus to snowy Vermont. The reader is hooked.

Lake, a very large and tall man (“His mother must’ve been a polar bear”), is waiting at the bus station in Vermont to chauffeur Ricky the remainder of his journey to an unknown destination for an unknown reason to meet unidentified people. As Lake drives deeper into the backwoods of Vemont, Ricky starts imagining that Lake will kill him. A tree falls across the road in front of the pickup. Lake gets out with a chain and ties it to the tree. Ricky expects Lake will tie the other end to the truck, but he doesn’t. Lake ties the chain to himself and makes an opening for the truck.

I tried to come up with an explanation, anything to feel less awestruck. But I was really only thinking one thing: this bastard moved a tree.

They finally arrive at a group of cabins and one large building, the Washburn Library. Ricky realizes others have likely received the same invitation:

Maybe I wasn’t being singled out. This is the part that brought a little sorrow. How embarrassing. To be a grown man who still wishes the world would tell him he’s special.

Ricky and the other invitees are told they have been chosen to be “Unlikely Scholars”. They all have a history of substance abuse or crime or both. All of them are black. They are all grateful for the comfortable lodgings, the good food, and the sense of purpose the Washburn Library provides.

LaValle is an insightful and observant author, recognizing and relating small details that engage the reader in the psychology of the characters as well as the plot. He engages the reader on issues of race, religion, class, substance abuse, the rehabilitation industry, and the universal human need to belong. The “Unlikely Scholars” are societal outcasts accustomed to surviving at the edges of society. But LaValle does not lose focus on the personal in addressing the larger issues that come to play. In fact, he often does a masterful job of blending the personal with more global issues.

I couldn’t tell, at this moment, which way he and I were going to go. I had an inclination to be friends, but these early steps can be delicate, especially with black men. None of us wants to be direspected. We can be pathological about this. Our skin’s so thin it’s a wonder the blood doesn’t leak out our pores.

Ricky Rice addresses not only race, but class.

People like us, poor folks, I mean, we’re wise in some ways but in others we act like children. We can be a pretty docile bunch…..No matter where you go, the poor have the capacity to endure. Some people even compliment us on it, as if endurance is all we can achieve.

The issue of achievement is an important one.

So when I went on methadone, or even tried to totally kick a few times, my friends and even coworkers praised me up through the ceiling. But the more they focused on this one achievement, the more I realized I’d never accomplished anything else.

Ricky Rice may not be unique in the Washburn Library, in fact, there are generations of Unlikely Scholars before his group, but it has given him a chance to achieve something more than endurance, more than simply kicking a drug habit. The Washburn Library gives him a chance to be special

This intriguing plot, and it is intriguing, is interrupted by flashbacks to Ricky’s childhood. He grew up in a small cult. Both plotlines present multiple questions that are unfolded slowly and appetizingly by LaValle. The two taut plotlines entice the pages to flip. Events become more and more urgent throughout, not culminating in an explosion, but being propelled by it.

This novel has some similarity’s to Lethem’s Chronic City in that it involves shadowy conspiracies, questions of truth and illusion, and larger than life characters, but the writing is not quite as crisp or inventive as Lethem’s. This novel is like Burnt Shadows in that both address post-9/11 issues and both start stronger than they end, but LaValle’s suffers in the comparison by relying too much on the fantastical. Big Machine even bears a resemblance to Lark and Termite via its parallel plot lines set decades apart which, nonetheless, are connected by numerous silky threads.

This final comparison is probably the most apt. While I enjoyed both the writing and the story told by both writers, I was ultimately diappointed with the means they used to tie the loose ends of their stories together. And perhaps this is what was frustrating to me, that the book started out like Chronic City in both feeling and pacing, but, like Lark and Termite and A Gate at the Stairs, shifted from a realist (if improbable) setup to a fantastic climax. Big Machine, for all its exploration of doubt, is grounded in faith.

5 Responses to Big Machine by Victor LaValle

  1. A thoughtful and perceptive review and I particularly appreciate the observations and comparisons in your conclusion. I haven’t read this book but I have read Burnt Shadows and A Gate at the Stairs and agree with your assessment of both. And I just finished a first novel (Matthew Hooton’s Deloume Road) that provoked a similar reaction. About two-thirds of the way through, you find yourself thinking: the author has created a complex and interesting set of circumstances and I wonder if he/she can successfully resolve them? And the rest of the novel confirms that, alas, he/she cannot. I can’t help but salute the effort and the set-up, but I still feel frustrated that perhaps a little less “front-end” might have created circumstances that allow for a more successful conclusion.

  2. Kerry says:


    Thanks, as always, for your comment. I would like to clarify that the drop off in Big Machine is closer to that in Burnt Shadows (disappointing, but not disastrous) than that in A Gate at the Stairs (disastrous). At least, it isn’t more than half way between the two.

    I did see your excellent review of Deloume Road, but, as this is not LaValle’s first novel, I did not connect the dots. Your summary about the nice set up and a failure of resolution is a spot-on description of the success and disappointment (for me) of this novel. LaValle had a great idea and, I think, some readers will enjoy it all the way through. For me, though, it went awry.

    I should mention it (something about what you wrote in your Hooton post) on your blog, so I will….


  3. Hm, it sounds very interesting as a premise, but the disappointing ending sounds, well, disappointing. And to be honest, being grounded in faith doesn’t tempt so much, there’s a belief in the power of faith (and self-belief) sometimes in US writing that can struggle to translate to my own more cynical shores.

    Lovely observation on the achievements thing though.

    One query, does the narrative voice convince as the voice of a former-drug addicted janitor? Obviously the world will contain well educated janitors, but most probably won’t be and the voice sounded to me more like the voice of an author than the voice of a man struggling with poverty and addiction. Is that unfair?

  4. Kerry says:


    Very well said about the “struggle to translate to my own more cynical shores”. My personal shores are a bit too cynical for much of that kind of thing too.

    I am not sure the narrative voice convinces, but it is not jarringly out of place either. At least, I did not find it so. And there are factors that, to preserve some surprise, I will not go into which factors, by the end, largely resolve any question about authenticity, I think.

    So, while I do not think your question is unfair at all (rather astute), the voice is not inappropriate.

  5. […] HW: “…one of the most seductive openings among the 2010 Tournament of Books contenders…” […]

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