As I say every August, I can hardly believe another year has gone by. As I scroll through the books I’ve read and written about this year, there have been some real gems. We the Animals! Buddha in the Attic! Sweet Talk! 

I also read all of Tayari Jones’s books, so I was excited to see her read last week in Brooklyn. Excited enough, in fact, that I sat in an extraordinarily crowded, sweltering bar through three readings and a break that stretched nearly forty minutes long waiting for her turn. She assumed the microphone with her usual warmth and humor (when she stumbled over her words early in her passage, she said that the problem with reading late is that you’ve been having cocktails the whole evening…) and read a chapter from her latest, Silver Sparrow, which is my favorite of her books. I was sitting at a table with strangers who had never heard of her; after she read, they were all fans.

She wasn’t the only reason I stuck out that reading, though–Victor LaValle closed out the evening and I was eager to see him, too. He wasn’t on my radar before a few weeks ago, which is a little shocking / embarrassing because he’s a pretty successful writer from QUEENS. Which means, of course, that I’m predisposed to love him. He read from his new book, out this week, The Devil in Silver. It is set in a psychiatric facility and about a man named Pepper, who winds up committed because, as LaValle explained, when someone is arrested, the paperwork is easier that way. It hooked me and I wanted to read more, but as of last week, the book wasn’t out yet. So, I did the next best thing and downloaded a Kindle Single that from what I understand serves as a preface, of sorts, to the new novel.

Or, I tried to do that–there was a bit of a delay because my Kindle stopped working. But, through the miracles and truly excellent customer service of Amazon (such mixed feelings…) I had a new Kindle two days later and Victor LaValle’s story “Lucretia and the Kroons” at my fingertips.

Lucretia, or Loochie, is twelve and a Queens resident. She lives in the apartment below her best friend, Sunny, who is sadly suffering from the late stages of cancer. The story begins with this firm grounding in reality–in Sunny’s absence, three second-string friends invited by Loochie’s mother attend her awkward birthday party, promptly make fun of her dress and are driven out the door by the hysterical birthday girl before the cake even comes out. Some believable domestic drama follows, and then Sunny is back from treatment, upstairs at her grandmother’s, and plans are made for a birthday redo.

This is when things take a strange turn in more ways than one. The story spirals out–after Loochie’s older brother tells her a story about the crackheads upstairs, the Kroons suddenly materialize–super-tall sinister creatures that are missing parts of their heads, very interested in eating up children, and occupying an apartment that contains Flushing Meadows Park, that in turn contains the underworld. The story becomes Loochie’s odyssey through this terrifying landscape, on a mission to save, or be saved by, Sunny.

This part of the story is wild, scary and fun. It felt out of control, like the writer was winging it, but that feeling fit with the content of the story so it worked. It also worked, I felt, because there were two very obvious explanations for what was happening. One, right before all the zaniness started, Loochie smoked a “cigarette” that Sunny had pilfered from her grandmother. Two, right before all the zaniness started, Sunny had failed come down to the party, an ambulance had arrived, and Sunny’s grandmother had been spotted crying. Drugs plus grief plus an inability to process that grief equals a perfectly plausible set up to a journey into a hybrid of Queens and hell. (Hold your jokes, please).

I wish so much that the story had either ended while still in this alternate world, or had ended with Loochie’s return to her apartment. It even could have ended with her conversation with her disbelieving mother. What happened instead, though, was a very quick clinical explanation that seemed tacked on and unnecessary. Without fully giving it away, I’ll say that knowing this story was a prequel to a novel set in a psychiatric facility already did the work of that explanation in a much more elegant way.

All that said, I really liked the writing and am excited that Kindle technology is being used to make such things as downloading a single ninety-nine cent story possible. When I started this blog four years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d own a Kindle; although I do still read most of my books in print, this proves there is a special place for e-readers!

 

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