My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is an ambitious horror novel about secret societies with subtextual issues about race and class that is full of laugh aloud moments. It’s a sort of tonal patchwork of A Confederacy of Dunces, The DaVinci Code and The Intuitionist.
Ricky Rice is a bus station janitor who receives a mysterious summons to someplace in remote Vermont. Because he’s an itinerant ex-junky, he uses the free bus ticket and arrives at the Washburn Library along with other African Americans misfits and petty criminals who all seem to have turning points of Epiphany buried deep in their checkered pasts. They are branded collectively as the Unlikely Scholars and charged with collecting and cataloging reports of esoteric phenomena. After a period lasting perhaps a year, Rice manages to crack the code, and is sent on a quest to Northern California to track down a heretical Unlikely Scholar.
The wild plot, full of incident and conspiracy and supernatural occurrences is as expertly paced as a Stephen King novel. But it was the narration and characters that kept me glued. Rice tells his story in the first person, full of quips and asides about lower class African American life that ring true. The repartee between Rice and his partner the Gray Lady (aka Adele Henry) zings like the best of Nick and Nora. The scenes of horror and degradation, both personal and environmental, are chilling. It’s a pleasure to read this kind of fiction with such well-realized characters that you don’t often see on the printed page.
Ultimately, I don’t think Big Machine succeeds as well as Lavalle’s most recent novel, The Devil in Silver. The ambition and scope of the plot gets the better of him. But it’s a fun ride, full of beautiful writing.
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