Review

The Big Machine

by Victor LaValle

Reading the disclaimer boilerplate on the copyright page after
finishing this novel, one smiles to consider the possibility of
“resemblance to actual events.” Certainly the Library
of Congress’s catalog entries on the same page --- ex-drug
addicts, parapsychologists, belief and doubt, psychological fiction
--- give the reader an idea of the scope of THE BIG MACHINE’s
366 pages. A recent interview on NPR was the first I’d heard
of Victor LaValle, and it caused me to both seek out the book and
expect the unexpected. I’m glad I did.

Ricky Rice is the ex-drug addict and the narrator of this
bildungsroman. “Taking heroin is like sinking into a tapioca
hammock. If that doesn’t sound good, then congratulations,
you will not enjoy heroin. May I suggest cocaine?” While
he’s not currently using at the beginning of the book,
he’s still holding. Alone, poor, cleaning train stations in
New England, he receives a hand-addressed envelope containing a bus
ticket and a cryptic message reminding him of a promise he made in
Grand Rapids in 2002. We take the bus with him to the mysterious
Washburn Library out in the wilds of upstate Vermont, where the
Dean inducts him into the Unlikely Scholars along with 11 other
“crackheads and criminals,” all black, all equally
mystified at finding themselves in comfortable if not luxurious
cabins in the snowy woods.

In careful, insightful and evenly paced prose, Ricky begins to
play out two yarns: one of his current Unlikely Scholar life and
one of his own unusual history as a child of a small Christian cult
called the Washerwomen. “Doubt is the big machine,” one
of the Washerwomen tells young Ricky. “It grinds up the
delusions of women and men.” But there are other big machines
that trouble Ricky’s conscience --- mainly the one that
aborted his girlfriend’s pregnancy. “The shame I felt
wasn’t because of what Gayle did, but why I
got her to do it. I was a coward.”

His Unlikely Scholar adventure takes him out to Oakland,
California, with the reticent Adele Henry, aka the Gray Lady
because of her prematurely white hair. But far from traveling in
James Bond style, they go Greyhound. “Seeing America by bus
is like touring the Louvre in a Porta Potti. And that’s all
that will ever need to be said about that.”

On this California mission, the Dean, Adele and Ricky face
terrible hotels, treacherous drivers, dangerous underground trips
through sewers, and a former Unlikely Scholar gone AWOL. And
through it all, they slowly learn to trust one another enough to
share their darkest secrets. They also encounter some of the
coolest otherworldly beings ever (are they Devils or Angels?) and
another --- even wilder --- proposition that I dare not dream of
spoiling.

What was the promise Ricky made in Grand Rapids? Why is
Adele’s hair white? How did Ricky come to kill his sister?
The genius of this book lies both in the larger-than-life modern
tale and in the social commentary tucked alongside. “He was a
light-skinned black man. Her friends used to call them yellow-boys.
Girls dated them and girls hated them, usually at the same
time.” The writing is as sure as the story is weird and
flighty. Along the way, we get answers to most of our salient
questions, so the novel delivers on its basic story promise. But
perhaps the best thing about the book is the questions that linger,
questions LaValle inspires us to try and answer for ourselves.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on December 22, 2010

The Big Machine
by Victor LaValle

  • Publication Date: March 9, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • ISBN-10: 0385527993
  • ISBN-13: 9780385527996