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.