Not since Chief Bromden has there been a misfit narrator as large and compelling as 315-pound Anthony, the voice of this captivating debut novel by LaValle, author of the story collection Slapboxing with Jesus. At the book's outset, Anthony's family finds him "living wild" in his apartment, expelled from Cornell University and suffering bouts of dementia. They bring him home to his African-American Queens neighborhood, which, like Anthony himself, threatens to tip from middle-class propriety to a state of shabby but colorful disrepair. There's the local loan shark, Ishkabibble; white-collar neighbors concerned about their lawns; a pack of roving dogs with keen noses for human weakness. Most important, there's Anthony's family: grandmother, mother and sister, "three versions of the same woman-past, present and future," who are usually at war with one another. Anthony isn't the first mentally ill member of his family. His mother, unstable in her youth, becomes erratic again just as Anthony tries to parlay his vigor for housecleaning and his encyclopedic knowledge of low-budget horror movies into some sort of promising future. Throughout, Anthony reflects on his own condition and that of those around him in a smart, sad and honest voice. The narrative shimmers with his self-deprecating wit and unexpected images ("Her hair was a big loose spray of black semi-curls emanating from her skull like the sound waves of her rollicking conversation"). LaValle's first book left critics divided over whether it had the substance to match its mannered style. Similar questions may be raised this time around, but LaValle's sympathetic and original narrator is a remarkable creation. (Nov.) Forecast: LaValle has yet to match Junot D!az-a writer to whom he is often compared-in sales or recognition, but a growing number of readers see him as a dark-horse favorite in the young writer sweepstakes. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
LaValle tries out full-length fiction after his promising story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus. At its heart is Anthony James, an obese, 23-year-old schizophrenic, and his dysfunctional family. (LJ 10/1/02) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
A morbidly obese Puerto Rican misfit dominates the sleazy comic landscape of this intermittently amusing first novel from LaValle, author of the vivid story collection slapboxing with jesus (1999). Three-hundred-something-pound Anthony James (also in slapboxing) lives in a multicultural Brooklyn neighborhood with his adolescent sister Nabisase, svelte mother (herself a former fattie), and frail (but mean--really mean) elderly grandmother. He’s "a twenty-three-year-old college dropout, a girthy goon suffering bouts of dementia" who works sporadically as a house-cleaner, hangs out with a loan shark named Ishkabibble, and makes mental notes for an "encyclopedia" of the sicko horror films he’s hooked on. Anthony, who narrates, has a fulsome comic voice that’s more than a little too reminiscent of that of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces). Toole time, so to speak, is also suggested by the frantic plot, which centers in a trip to Lumpkin, Virginia, to enter Nabisase in a regional beauty contest for virgins ("The Miss Innocence Pageant"), and also involves Anthony with a "foundation" formed to support a serial malefactor who has reinvented himself as "Ahmed Abdel," his neighborhood’s menacing layabouts and loose canines, and his likewise catastrophically overweight buddy, moribund Ledric Mayo. Nabisase marches toward womanhood, their mother keeps picking up unsuitable men, Grandma ages like rancid wine--and Anthony spins his wheels sardonically, occasionally getting off a few good ones ("I am the unattractive America"; a favorite B-movie The Dead Reserved a Room is thumbnailed as "a quieter version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"). But the overall impression is of awriter who’s laboring to knock us dead with one farcical exaggeration after another. LaValle has energy and wit to burn, but really ought to store some of it. Thus far, the short story seems to be his forte.
From the Publisher
“A compassionate mystery of madness . . . gritty and funny, both smart-alecky and dark.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Bristles with visionary energy.” —Vanity Fair
“One of our most talented young writers.” —Charles Baxter
“His characters remind one of Chester Himes and Charles Wright, but LaValle is special.” —Ishmael Reed
Proves that Victor LaValle is a voice to be reckoned with for years to come.” —Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Bodega Dreams
“[The] characters are as beautifully rendered as they are bizarrely believable. . . . LaValle . . . writes prose that hums in your ear and appeals to your intellect.” —The Washington Post Book World
Read an Excerpt
They drove a green rented car into central New York State to find me living wild in my apartment. Wearing shattered glasses and my hair a giant cauliflower-shaped afro on my head. I was three hundred and fifteen pounds. I was a mess, but the house was clean. They knocked and when I opened the front door there were three archangels on my stoop. My sister rubbed my ear when I cried. She whispered, -Why don't you go put on clothes?
My family took me home to Queens and kept me in the basement. When I tried to go outside alone, they discouraged it. My sister led me by the hand when walking to the supermarket. Mom cut my meat at the dinner table. They treated me like what some still refer to as a Mongoloid. A few days of this is tenderness, but two weeks seems more like punishment. The spirit of blame stooped in a corner.
Their concern was wonderful, but the condescension was deadly. And surprising. Before opening the front door to them I really thought my life was full of pepper.
Three weeks after coming back to Rosedale I cooked a big, red breakfast for my family just to prove that I could. Not only to them, but to myself. It was September 25th, 1995. I remember certain dates to organize and understand my disaster. Without them my mind is a mass grave.
It was a red breakfast because I added ketchup to the eggs when scrambling them. And to the bacon as it curled in the pan. Call me tasteless, but ketchup is the only seasoning I need.
I was so nervous that I even dressed up that morning. This bright purple suit that was loose on me and hid my tits. Made me look like a two-hundred-fifty-pound man.
Our oven was so hot I had to watch I didn't sweat into the food. Wiped my forehead with my tie. I pulled butter from the fridge to set next to a plate of toast and if this didn't make them happy then I was out of ideas.
But they didn't appear. I waited a long time.
Even though I heard their beds creak then footsteps on the floor, they never came around the corner. It was like they turned to dust. I prodded the bacon, but without enthusiasm. There was no sizzle yet. With my left hand in my pants pocket I hoped to look cool. I counted numbers to keep from fidgeting.
I turned the gas flames lower. I washed dishes left in the sink overnight and put them in high cabinets. Sunlight addressed the windows.
Worst of all fears is abandonment. Eventually I had to know where they'd gone. The white linoleum tiles ticked against the undersides of my dress shoes.
I was silent in the hallway. There weren't any windows here so the place was dark and the ceiling seemed far. My hands tapping the walls was the echo inside a hollow bomb.
They'd hid in the bathroom. Mom leaned against the sink while Grandma rested on the toilet and my sister, Nabisase, sat on the rim of the tub. Three versions of the same woman-past, present and future-huddled in one room. With the door partway shut I was unseen and apart from them.
Mom whispered, -We should go to him.
-Yes. Grandma agreed, but they stayed there.
My family was afraid of me.
I expected more sympathy, actually, because I sure wasn't the first one in my bloodline to go zipper-lidded. You should've seen when my mother tobogganed naked through Flushing Meadow Park in 1983. Four police carried her to the hospital wrapped in their jackets. Parents on the hill thought Mom was a hump-starved fiend out to abduct their children. Her illness often made her frenzied sexually. Whenever she relapsed the woman was an open-womb, but Haldol had stabilized Mom's mind for years.
There was my Uncle Isaac, too, who walked from New York to the Canadian border in 1986, and emptied out his brain pan with a rifle. So when they discovered me in that Ithaca apartment Mom and Grandma recognized the situation. Their boy had become a narwhal.
I pushed in the bathroom door to surprise them, but instead of shuddering they only sighed.
-Good morning, Grandma murmured.
-I made eggs.
Nabisase smiled. -That's very good of you!
She was confused and angry. She was thirteen and thus only partially human when it came to compassion. Call me her older brother, by ten years, but Nabisase practically had to tie me down to cut my hair that first week back. I kept saying that I looked fine. No kid is going to enjoy that. Sarcasm was her mild revenge.
Mom and Grandma were earnestly complimentary; anything I did earned praise. If I'd taken an especially heavy boweling they would have bought me a squeeze toy.
Nabisase asked, -Is the fire oven still on?
-The place where you cook, Nabisase explained slowly.
-It might be, I admitted.
They ran past me. Forget that. Right over me. Even Grandma, a ninety-three year old, vaulted my doughy shoulders and sped into the kitchen. Where Mom was turning the burners' dials straight off, to six o'clock.
-I wouldn't have started a fire, I told them.
-How do you know? Nabisase asked.
Neville Chamberlain believed Hitler would be satisfied to taste only a jigger of Czechoslovakia. My family knew I wasn't retarded, but the idea of one more paranoid schizophrenic in our fold fucked with their common sense so much that they never mentioned medication, hospitalization, examination. For what? They wished that I was fragile instead of berserk, so that's what I became. They handled me with cushy mitts.
Grandma's English was slightly twisted. She was from East Africa. Uganda, specifically. My mother had also been born there, but Nabisase and I were from Queens. Grandma said, -Well we should have nice dresses then.
Grandma said, -You are wearing a suit. We should put on long pants.
While they changed I finished with the food. I got the frying pans going again; the smell of pig meat warmed my heart. The eggs were solid; not dry, just firm. So much grease on the skillet that they floated pretty as kids in a wading pool. I wasn't fat because of any thyroid condition.
We lived in Rosedale, at the southeastern end of Queens. A suburb of New York complete with the growls of cars leaving driveways. The sound of engines was pleasant to me.
Grandma came back first wearing a yellow housedress and black flat shoes. She walked down the hallway, into the liv-ing room, then sat on the sectional couch waiting to be served. Across the street a husband backed his RV into the yard of a home he shared with his wife. My family was middle class and I liked that.
Then, loud as the Devil in his best pink shoes, my sister attacked my mother. A blitzkrieg; bomb blasts and shouting. Lightning behind Mom's bedroom door.
My mother came down the hallway chased by her daughter, who was swinging a hair dryer and yelling Mom's name. Nabisase hammer-slammed Mom across the back of the skull and the dryer's nozzle shattered into plastic chips around the room. Nabisase took two handfuls of Mom's hair and used them as handles for pulling our mother, face first, to the ground.
Grandma tried to stand, but the couch was shaking too much because Mom had pushed Nabisase backward across it. My mother might even have strangled Nabisase if my sister weren't scratching the skin from Mom's hands.
Nabisase pulled the television from our gray entertainment unit. It would have made a louder crash but my mother's foot stopped the fall. Maybe a toe was broken. I bet my sister wished that was true.
My mother had dabbled with art-dress making and sculpture to name two. The only proof of this was a horrendous statuette on top of our entertainment unit. A tiny bust meant to resemble Sidney Poitier except that both ears were on the same side of the poor man's head. With the television crashing the small bust wobbled about to fall so my mother set it safely on the floor.
Then there was a broom against the wall, so Mom took it and gave Nabisase two baton shots in the ribs. This put my sister on the floor.
And I was the one with a problem?
Grandma yelled, -Anthony! Come. Anthony! Please.
When I stood between my sister and mother they went around me. My sister threw couch cushions over my head hoping they'd hit Mom. Not to hurt, but to annoy, which was a fine alternative.
Mom whipped a small picture frame under one of my outstretched arms and it plunked against a wall, chipping the paint. -I'm getting a lock for my bedroom, Mom promised. I'm getting it today.
At which point Grandma raised her voice. The old lady climbed on the couch. -You crazy three bitches! she yelled. You stake my heart!
She fell backward, but caught herself. The yellow housedress hung down between her thighs. With her spindly old arms and legs visible she became a giant wiry spider. Gnashing and screaming and the yellow fabric gathered below her like a dangling silk line. Loom of the dead. She scared us away.
There really were worse situations than mine. Mothers and daughters are war.
Not to seem monomaniacal, but there was still the matter of nine eggs, eight slices of toast, six pats of butter, four glasses of orange juice, two cups of tea, six sausage links and thirteen strips of bacon awaiting an eating. How could they forget that?
My mother and Nabisase went to dress; passed the kitchen like there was no food inside. This is something I couldn't do. I didn't understand how my mother could. She used to be weak like me, but now I was the only one who felt the pantry calling. There are people who love to eat and those who don't. My mother might have changed, but I was still a man who found any complication less daunting after a full plate.
From the Hardcover edition.