Book Review: 'Big Machine' by Victor LaValle

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By Elizabeth Hand
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BIG MACHINE

By Victor LaValle

Spiegel & Grau. 370 pp. $25

In Victor LaValle's spectacular new novel, "Big Machine," race and religion are the subterranean tributaries that threaten to destroy America's underclass, even as they help to sustain it. Along with Junot Diaz, Lev Grossman, Kelly Link and Kevin Brockmeier, LaValle is part of an increasingly high-profile and important cohort of writers who reinvent outmoded literary conventions, particularly the ghettos of genre and ethnicity that long divided serious literature from popular fiction. In that spirit, the epigraph for "Big Machine" is from John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing," and in LaValle's acknowledgments he thanks not just Thomas Paine but also Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and "my man Ambrose Bierce," all of whom stand as spiritual godparents to this sprawling, fantastical work.

"Lurking in toilets was my job," says Ricky Rice, the novel's narrator. Ricky is a 40-year-old janitor, a recovering junkie and childhood survivor of the Washerwomen, a communal religious cult whose catastrophic, bloody demise evokes that of the Branch Davidians and Philadelphia's MOVE organization. Ricky is cleaning a toilet stall in Utica, N.Y., when he opens a mysterious envelope addressed to him. Inside he finds a one-way bus ticket to Burlington, Vt., as well as a cryptic note: "You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it."

Ricky immediately thinks the worst. "What kind of black man accepts an unsigned invitation to the whitest state there is?" he wonders. But three days later he's in Vermont, where he's driven to a strange compound known as the Washburn Library. He meets several other people, like him, all outsiders before their arrival. "Seven black people in the Northeast Kingdom. Sounds like the start of a gruesome folktale."

Well, yes and no. "Big Machine" certainly has the trappings of a modern horror novel. It features an ancient Native American legend; a slightly sinister authority figure, known as the Dean; and a band of misfits known as the library's Unlikely Scholars. Like Ricky, they're all minor criminals who have been summoned for reasons only gradually made clear, when the Dean recounts the history of the library's founder, a runaway slave named Judah Washburn.

In 1775, Judah fled to Northern California, where he heard an eerie Voice announce, "I am the father of the despised child." "Then I am your son!" Judah replied, whereupon the Voice directed him to a hoard of buried gold. Judah hauled it back East and settled in Vermont. But he never heard the Voice again. After many years, he founded the Washburn Library as a place where he and his children, and eventually the Unlikely Scholars, could dedicate their lives to perusing its vast archive for every obscure newspaper account of paranormal activity in hopes of discovering where, exactly, Judah's fateful encounter took place.

This long, fruitless search is interrupted when the Dean announces that he is sending Ricky and another Unlikely Scholar, Adele Henry, to San Francisco's East Bay in pursuit of a renegade from the Library, a zealot named Solomon Clay. This is when LaValle's ambitious novel really takes off, and when the implications of the Voice's message begin to echo ominously through its pages.

Despite its steady pulse of dark humor, its supernatural Voice and the presence of some creepy entities known as the Devils of the Marsh, "Big Machine" is a novel about faith and the ways in which religion can create monsters far more terrifying than anything dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft. Clay (his name evokes that of Solomon Kane, Robert E. Howard's Puritan avenger) has organized an army of homeless suicide bombers to attack the Bay Area. Clay's rationale dovetails with that of the Washerwomen, recalled in flashback by Ricky as he hunts this homegrown terrorist through sewers and abandoned parks.

"Their main idea was pretty straightforward," Ricky explains. "The Church is broken. Which one? Take your pick. All choices were correct. The Church, that abiding institution, had stopped working. A new church had to take its place. Something small and defiant and renewed with concern. Which is about as traditional an idea as Christianity has." The Washerwomen reinterpreted the Bible for their adherents, underscoring the same themes of bondage and escape and salvation that African slaves had claimed centuries before. Similarly, Solomon Clay skips past "The meek shall inherit the Earth" and moves straight to "Vengeance is mine." His methods are brutal and terrifying. LaValle wisely eschews gore for the far more horrific effect generated by a grim, measured narrator who watches the unfolding of a post-9/11 catastrophe.

Ricky and Adele are beautifully drawn characters, only a few steps removed from the homeless army they're attempting to stop. Adele is a former prostitute; Ricky fights the temptation to start shooting up again. In their earlier, pre-Scholar lives, both barely survived agonizing encounters with evil that make for difficult reading. But can we ever be certain what evil consists of, in human or spiritual terms? In his "Devil's Dictionary," LaValle's man Ambrose Bierce defined religion as "a daughter of Hope and Fear." Victor LaValle adds his own gloss: "Doubt is the big machine . . . [that] grinds up the delusions of men and women." His novel ends not with a bang or a whimper, but with the sound of immense gears starting to turn.

Hand's novella "Illyria" will be published next spring.


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