Book Review: Readings

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The Ecstatic or, Homunculus

by Victor LaValle

Vintage, 272 pp., $13

We've seen the holy fool before, of course; perhaps we're well acquainted. In The Ecstatic -- the debut novel by Victor LaValle, who cannonballed into the young/urban/big-lit milieu with the award-winning short story collection Slapboxing With Jesus, made the PEN/Faulkner finalist list with this book, and, somewhere in there, got really fat and then thin again -- there are at least four, but first and foremost is Anthony James, 315-pound protagonist -- hero, maybe. To be young, obese, and black (also: schizophrenic) is, at least in part, hilarious, if Anthony is any kind of indicator. Rescued naked and "living wild" in his apartment near Cornell, from which he dropped out after going somewhat nuts, Anthony is dragged home by his grandmother, mother, and sister; there, these "three versions of the same woman -- past, present and future" start working their own trinity of cures: hard labor, diet, and religion, respectively. When Anthony does choose to don apparel, he wears suits to contain himself (and in hopes of getting laid), even when he's cleaning up asbestos as part of a bootleg hazmat team; he courts an equally ample lass with successful, though brief, results; he attempts, in his way, to do yard work under the watchful eye of his house-proud neighbors. There's a quest involving a beauty contest and its scary shadow pageant; there's another involving a putative tapeworm; there are villains and battles, a Greek chorus and redemption, a bit. It's classical stuff, but it's also the essence of tight, smart modernity, full of heartbreakingly elegant phraseology, bone-dry humor, all-out absurdity, and wonder in spite of itself -- these at their cumulative best when, after some long, twisted "internal" monologue, Anthony realizes he has been speaking out loud. (That gets me every time.) It's also very of a place, that place being southeastern Queens, and one of LaValle's subtler feats is the way he captures a mildly declining middle-class black neighborhood in a few strokes. (On the other hand, this sometimes leads to a certain ambiguity: When Anthony describes the goings-on at a truly surreal diet center, we're not sure if it's the insanity, the odd magical realist touch, or the messed-up entrepreneurship endemic to such parts.) Mostly, though, we're deep in Ignatius J. Reilly territory here, tailing the enlightened and acerbic buffoon at war with body and family. The difference is that while The Ecstatic contains (perhaps) as many guffaws as A Confederacy of Dunces, it doesn't play as pure farce. Neither is it tragedy, but something in between, something that recognizes the fragile hold we have on our own minds, much less our friends and families, and the earnest attempt to keep it together, as art, or at least artful. "But do you believe our world is an alchemical comedy?" queries Anthony at the outset. "Because I do." Yeah, you want to answer after reading this fine, divine novel. Me, too.

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The Ecstatic, Victor LaValle, Vintage

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