See monsters

Pub date September 2, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


REVIEW Naomi Ophelia Lamar was my cousin, but my big sister. Six years older than me, she ran away from home at 16. Though we stayed in touch, too many years of no contact had changed us both. We tried but could never close the distance. Last year, they found her body in a Dumpster in Birmingham, Ala. She’d been stabbed over 30 times. Her husband had done it. Afterward, he drove to the nearest bridge and threw himself off. She was the grandmother of three. I sat in the bathroom screaming, "We are not garbage!"

Bizarre and horrible things happen. They just do. They happen to us, around us, and because of us. Sometimes the horrible things only become horrible on reflection. We liked them at the time. Sometimes the bizarre things become so commonplace that they stop being bizarre. Both bizarre and horrible things become badges of distinction and honor when we survive. When we answer the call and stagger to daylight.

This is the general premise of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine (Spiegel & Grau, 284 pages, $25), which opens with a look at Ricky Rice, a middle-aged porter in a bus depot in Utica, N.Y. It’s 2005, and the world is about to go broke. Ricky’s a downtrodden sanitation worker with a shady past. He’s never seen better days, and none seem to be forthcoming. That is, until he receives a mysterious note reminding him of The Promise he made: a one-way bus ticket to Vermont’s northeast kingdom. On the bus to the frigid north, we hear LaValle’s refrain from an alcoholic goblin on a tear to his captive audience: "Human beings are no damn good. We even worse than animals. We like …"

The ellipsis just dangles, from the book’s first section on. As the events of Big Machine unfolded, I realized that that very phrase, and that very ellipsis, had been hanging from my lips since last year. It is the jump-off point for Lavalle’s book, and as we travel with Ricky Rice — alongside him, but also inside his mind as it seeks justification and reason — we begin to understand why.

Big Machine is a crafty book. Every page is a precise and illuminating reveal — a large veil playfully lifted from the reader’s initial conceptions of black/white, good/evil, and ultimately, salvation. Each chapter is a possible spoiler. A tough job for the reviewer, to be sure. Especially one who has been anticipating such a novel (and working on such a novel) for years.

Behold the invisible! You shall see unknown worlds: Ricky is recruited, along with six other recovering addicts and petty criminals to become a paranormal investigator. All of them have heard The Voice at the deep bottom of their shoddy existences and answered it with The Promise. Like generations of wretched of the earth before them, they are inducted into a secret society of "negros" ("I won’t say African Americans," says Rice, "it’s too damn long") to find The Voice and figure out what it wants.

From cleaning out bathroom stalls in work boots and T-shirts, Ricky becomes a dandy, wearing the finest clothes that the 1940s and 1950s could provide. Fitted in the best vines, he makes his way to (where else?) the Bay Area to confront a murder-suicide cult, and his own monstrous past.

Far from a standard dry examination of doubt and faith, Lavalle’s allegorical approach is sweeping and swashbuckling. Big Machine takes us from Ricky’s idyllic childhood — sweet as saccharine, with a black tar of burn — to his romantic nadir, dying in a puddle of piss and shit in the basement of a house owned by a man named Murder.

LaValle has named Shirley Jackson and Ambrose Pierce as influences, along with those he calls "the Black Eccentrics": Ishmael Reed, Gayle Jones, Darth Vader. His approach to gothic horror adds black Black humor and a new element of ferocity to the AfroSurreal aesthetic.

There’s a lot of tearing in this book. Flesh is peeled, pried, burned, punctured. Torture plays a prominent role. Children are exploited, souls are gnawed away, and spirits are broken. Bullets fly, bodies are wrenched, mauled, mutilated and discarded — so much so that Lavalle’s main refrain takes on greater weight when it reappears, in extended form, from the mouth of one of Big Machine‘s main characters. "Human beings are no damn good!," the character says. "The despised become the despicable. God Damn! We worse than animals! We’re like monsters."

Monsters. Big Machine has those too. Some wear suits, some wear shawls, some move between the shadows with vise-grip hands. The story is neither miserable nor grotesque, and it is proof of LaValle’s genius that sympathy and forgiveness extends to the whole pitiful lot.

I’ve been following LaValle since I read his 1999 short story collection Slapboxing With Jesus (which takes its title from a Ghostface Killah quote), and followed it up by reading 2003’s The Ecstatic (which in turn inspired Mos Def to title his latest album the same). Mos Def contributed a blurb to Big Machine, and the book’s blurbs are telling: according to them, LaValle is Marquez mixed with Poe, or Marakami mixed with Ellison, or Bosch having a baby with Lenny Bruce. But I feel they all miss the mark — I’m here to tell you that Victor LaValle is a believer in the unseen world. He has been there, and what he has brought back has affirmed my belief too. Yes, there are monsters out there, and what’s an AfroSurrealist supposed to do?

"I guess we could lock ourselves in the bathroom and hide. Let someone else face the fight," says Ricky. "But we’re not going to do that."