Big Machine by Victor LaValle
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The Dean tapped the wooden match against the stone fireplace.
"Means it's ours, Ricky. The Voice chose us. Despised by many, but not the Voice. The American Negro finally got its god."
This wacky and highly entertaining rollercoaster ride of a novel begins in Union Station in Utica, New York. Ricky Rice is a 40 year old black janitor in the station, a survivor of a suicide cult that his parents belonged to in Queens, NY during his childhood, years spent in foster care, and a series of menial jobs and failed love affairs. He is a former junkie who has been clean for several years, but he still keeps a stash of heroin handy in case the urge to shoot up becomes too strong. He receives a envelope at work on a winter day in 2005, which contains a one way bus ticket to Burlington, Vermont, and a mysterious note that informs him that it's time to honor the promise he made in Cedar Rapids, Iowa three years before.
Ricky decides to take a chance, since there is little for him in Utica, and embarks on the trip. He is taken to a compound and meets six other African Americans, all former substance abusers or petty criminals who received similar requests. They are met by the Dean, an older man who tells them they have been called because each of them once heard the Voice, a powerful supernatural being who originally spoke to and enriched a former 18th century slave. Those who have heard the Voice are all poor African Americans, dispossessed and despised by the larger society and by traditional Christian religions. The seven are titled the Unlikely Scholars, and are charged with deciphering hidden external and internal clues to locate the Voice, in exchange for free room & board at the compound. Several months later, Ricky is called by the Dean, and he is sent to California on a mission that promises to be as dangerous as it is mysterious, in the company of an attractive woman at the compound who he has seen but knows nothing about.
The novel includes flashbacks to Ricky's childhood, the crisis that led him to hear the Voice, and the story of the mysterious woman, which is intertwined with the events of the increasingly bizarre mission, which is much better read than described in a review. LaValle expertly mixes a rich stew filled with elements of the supernatural and science fiction, along with a unique literary style filled with humor and pathos, which will appeal to a wide variety of readers. I'd highly encourage everyone to read this book, but please make sure that your seat belt is tightly fastened before take off.
Although it started slowly for me, I was quickly drawn into this tale of Ricky Rice, a 40-ish African-American and a former petty criminal and heroin addict (who still keeps a stash, just in case) who receives a mysterious envelope at his place of employment (a bus station in Utica, NY, where he cleans toilets) with a bus ticket to a remote region of Vermont. He debates whether to go, but finds himself on the bus and, ultimately, at the equally mysterious Washburn Library, where he and his fellow Unlikely Scholars (all from similar backgrounds) are expected to read newspapers looking for interesting items, although they are not told what these interesting items are. The story of how they try to figure it out, work together or apart, adjust to being treated with respect and having the necessities of life provided for them, as well as life in the middle of nowhere, etc., is compelling, and the reader starts to learn about Ricky's background as part of a cult, and more. Lavalle has insight into and compassion for the dispossessed, the outcasts of society, the people we don't look at when we see them on the street, and there were many sentences I read that made me sit up and say "wow." He can make sharp and pointed comments on race, class, and the lives of the poor and struggling.
When Ricky and another Unlikely Scholar, Adele, are sent on a mission to California to deal with a rogue Unlikely Scholar who could cause trouble for the library, the story takes a turn to the supernatural and, ultimately, the melodramatic, and I had more trouble dealing with this section, although I still admired Lavalle's writing. Because I don't read horror or science fiction, I could only understand the "devils" and "angels" as psychological metaphors rather than real beings; perhaps this is how Lavalle intends them, as he I believe he intended the monster/devil in The Devil in Silver, but they certainly had "real" effects on Ricky. I am unsure how I feel about this material.
The novel deals with big ideas, especially about faith and doubt, and how God does or doesn't talk to individuals. "Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men." Of course the cult Ricky grew up in came to a bad end. (I was going to write "Don't all cults come to a bad end?," but then I realized that the ones that don't become "religions.") The reader learns about the horror of it as Ricky is struggling to understand what is going on out in California, in the marshes under the town of Garland, somewhere on the San Francisco Bay, and what the rogue Scholar, Solomon Clay, is up to. When Ricky and Adele venture into this underworld, it is truly creepy.
I can't really describe this novel more concretely without giving too much away. There are mysteries of the present, and mysteries of the past, and mysteries that are left unsolved that are, probably, unsolvable. I continue to think Victor Lavalle is a very impressive writer, even as I struggled with the supernatural parts of this book.