I like what Victor LaValle is doing. Let me rephrase. I love what he is doing. His third book — Big Machine — is, itself, a big machine.
Its ambition is epic, characters flawed and unpredictable, plot fantastical. As I read this novel, I realized: I think of myself as possessing a lot of certainty about my politics, my perspectives. This book, however, gives me doubts. And for that reason, you must read this book.
Big Machine is the story of Ricky Rice, a recovering heroin addict, who has been summoned to a mysterious place called the Washburn Library in Vermont. He, along with several other societal misfits nicknamed the Unlikely Scholars, is instructed to peruse archives of newspaper clippings, and to investigate a mysterious Voice that spoke more than 200 years ago to Judah Washburn, the library's founder.
Soon Ricky, joined by his cohort, Adele, is sent to California to seek and assassinate a former Scholar who has broken off from the organization to start a rogue group. As we follow these two on their mission, we learn that Ricky was raised in a religious cult that ultimately committed group suicide, and Adele is a former prostitute who narrowly escaped the machinations of a serial killer.
In LaValle's explorations of faith and skepticism, he suggests that we must believe in something, but he also insists that unquestioning faith is dangerous, too. For example, The Washerwomen, heads of the religion that Ricky's family follows, encourage the children to cultivate a healthy form of skepticism while ironically expecting their unquestioning commitment to the cult.
American writers have often struggled with questions of faith. In 1942, Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her autobiography, "you wouldn't think that a person who was born with God in the house would ever have any questions to ask on the subject. But as early as I can remember, I was questing and seeking." LaValle's novel encourages the same thoughtful probing.
As I was reading this book, I saw my daily experiences in a new light. I walk and ride public transportation every day, and I once watched as the contents of a woman's purse spilled onto the floor of the bus as she nodded, drool running from her mouth. I sat there motionlessly while those around me quietly returned her lipstick, bus card and wallet to her purse and placed it back in her lap. Then the passenger beside the sleeping woman nudged her and said, "You alright, sister?" I thought of LaValle's novel at that moment, and I promised myself that next time I would be the one to help.
When a writer of LaValle's skills explores these fundamental questions about faith, we are forced as reader-citizens to examine our own beliefs. What do we believe and what do we doubt? Do we even know? At one point in the novel, a "bum" on a bus yells: "To be an American is to be a believer!" followed by, "But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."
What is literature if not something that inspires us to take a closer, deeper look at ourselves? If this is what great books do — urge us to be our more compassionate selves — then Big Machine should be on our list of must-read books.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.
As days get longer and the sun's rays get stronger, books that are lighter and brighter stand a better chance of squeezing into packed beach bags and suitcases. But that doesn't mean summer books need to be weightless. Finding the perfect balance in a single bound edition can seem impossible, but it's a challenge that's just right for independent booksellers like Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Fla., Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, and Lucia Silva of Studio City, Calif.'s Portrait of a Bookstore. Among the three of them, they've managed to find 16 books that fit the bill. Showoffs!
This summer's rays of literary sunshine come from 15 authors whose topics range from loaves of bread to small-town life in the Texas Hill Country. There's fiction from Sarah Blake, Hilary Thayer Hamann and Brady Udall, whose 600-page novel, The Lonely Polygamist, about a man with four wives who finds himself drawn to a fifth woman, was picked by two of our booksellers. There's also poetry (and a memoir) from quadriplegic writer Paul Guest, the story behind the making of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, and a first-person, nonfiction book from Ander Monson that's definitely Not a Memoir. The title even says so.
Don't look for dignity in public bathrooms. The most you'll find is privacy and sticky floors. But when my boss gave me the glossy envelope, the bathroom was the first place I ran. What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job.
I was a janitor at Union Station in Utica, New York. Specifically contracted through Trailways to keep their little ticket booth and nearby bathroom clean. I'd done the same job in other upstate towns, places so small their whole bus stations could've fit inside Union Station's marbled hall. A year in Kingston, six months in Elmira. Then Troy. Quit one and find the next. Sometimes I told them I was leaving, other times I just disappeared.
When I got the envelope, I went to the bathroom and shut the door. I couldn't lock it from the inside so I did the next best thing and pulled my cleaning cart in front of the door to block the way. My boss was a woman, but if the floors in front of the Trailways booth weren't shining she'd launch into the men's room with a fury. She had hopes for a promotion.
But even with the cart in the way I felt exposed. I went into the third stall, the last stall, so I could have my peace. Soon as I opened the door, though, I shut it again. Good God. Me and my eyes agreed that the second stall would be better. I don't know what to say about the hygiene of the male species. I can understand how a person misses the hole when he's standing, but how does he miss the hole while sitting down? My goodness, my goodness. So, it was decided, I entered stall number two.
The front of the envelope had my name, written by hand, and nothing else. No return address in the corner or on the back, and no mailing address. My boss just said the creamy yellow envelope had been sitting on her desk when she came in that morning. Propped against the green clay pen holder her son made in art class.
I held the envelope up to the fluorescent ceiling lights and saw two different papers inside. One a long rectangle and the other a small square. I tapped the envelope against my palm, then tore the top half slowly. I blew into the open envelope, turned it upside down, and dropped both pieces of paper into my hand.
I heard my name and a slap against the bathroom door. Hit hard enough that the push broom fell right off my cleaning cart and clacked against the tile floor. You would've thought a grenade had gone off from the way I jumped. The little sheets of paper slipped from my palm and floated to that sticky toilet floor.
"Aw, Cheryl!" I shouted.
"Don't give me that," she yelled back.
I walked out the stall to my cleaning cart. Lifted the broom and pulled the cart aside. Didn't even have time to open the door for Cheryl, she just pushed at it any damn way. I flicked the ceiling lights off, like a kid who thinks the darkness will hide him.
I'm going to tell you something nice about my boss, Cheryl McGee. She could be sweet as baby's feet as long as she didn't think you were taking advantage. When I first moved to Utica, she and her son even took me out for Chicken Riggies. It was a date, but I pretended I didn't know. The stink of failure had followed my relationships for years, and I preferred keeping this job to trying for love again.
Now she stood at the bathroom door, trying to peek around me. A slim little redhead who'd grown her hair down to her waist and wore open-toed sandals in all but the worst of winter.
"Someone's in there?" she asked, looked up at the darkened lights.
"Me," I said.
She pointed her chin down, but her eyes up at me. She thought she looked like a mastermind, dominating with her glare, but I'd been shot at before. Once, I was thrown down a flight of stairs.
"I mean, is there anyone in there that I can't fire?"
Oop. I lifted the broom and shook it.
"I was just sweeping," I said.
Cheryl nodded and stepped back two paces.
"I don't mind breaks, Ricky, you know that." She took out her cell phone and flipped it open, looked at the face. "But I need this station looking crisp first thing in the morning."
"I'll be done in a minute," I said.
Cheryl nodded, reached back, and swept her hand through her waist-length hair. The gesture didn't look like flirtation, just hard work.
"Hey! What did that letter say?"
I looked back into the bathroom. "Don't know yet."
She nodded and squeezed her lips together. "Well, I'd love to know," she said, and smiled weakly.
"Me too," I told her, not unkindly.
Then, of all things, she gave me a limp salute with her right hand. After that she turned in her puffy gray boots and walked toward the ticket booth.
The bathroom's windows were a row of small frosted glass rectangles right near the ceiling. They let in light, but turned it green and murky. Now, as I crept back to the second toilet stall, I imagined I was walking underwater, and felt queasy. I opened the door to find the first piece of paper right where I'd dropped it. And I recognized it immediately.
A bus ticket.
I bent at the knees and braced one hand against the stall wall for balance. My right leg ached something awful. I even let out an old man's groan as I crouched, but that kind of ache was nothing new. I'd felt forty ever since I was fifteen.
I held the ticket at an angle so I could read it in the hazy light.
One way, from Union Station to Burlington, Vermont.
An eleven- or twelve-hour trip if you figured all the station stops between here and there. The date on the ticket read Thursday, the twenty-first of January, just three days off. The name of the company on the top was Greyhound. I worked for Trailways. It sounds silly, but the logo made the ticket feel like contraband. I leaned back, out of the stall, and peeked at the bathroom door to make sure I was still alone.
I checked the back of the ticket for something, a note, an explanation. Nothing. Then I remembered that I'd seen two silhouettes through the envelope.
I ducked my head to the left, looking to the floor of the sanitary first stall, but it hadn't landed there. Then I looked to my right and saw that little cream-colored sheet, not much bigger than a Post-it, flat on the floor of filthy old stall number three.
Let me be more precise.
Flat on the floor, in a gray puddle, in filthy old stall number three.
Better to leave it behind than dip fingers in the muck on that floor. Even wearing gloves didn't seem like enough protection. Maybe a hazmat suit.
Leave it there. Make peace with a little mystery.
I stood and rubbed my bad knee, even turned to leave, but you know that old saying about curiosity: curiosity is a bastard.
I opened the door of stall number three and tried not to look at the bowl itself, or at all that had smeared and splashed along the seat and the back wall. I opened my mouth to breathe, but the faint whiff of filth, like a corrupted soul, haunted me. It made my eyes tear up. Even my ears seemed to ring. I bet I looked like a nerve gas victim.
So I used the toe of my boot to tug the sheet of paper toward me, but it wouldn't move. I had to use my hand.
I lurched my middle finger forward, even as I pulled my head back, and touched the corner of the soaked little sheet. I flicked at it and flicked at it, but the damned thing barely shifted. I had no choice.
I picked the paper up, right out of the muck. The gray liquid didn't even run down my fingers, it just clung, like jelly, to the tips. It was cold and lumpy. My skin went numb. The wet paper lay flat in my palm; I peeled it off with my left hand, then held it to the greenish light of the windows.
"Aw, Cheryl!" I shouted.
"Enough of that! You get out here!"
I would, but not yet. I stepped out of the stall and rose onto my toes, getting the soaked sheet as close to the windows as possible. I could see black ink on the paper. Make out the same handwriting that had scribbled my name on the outside of that envelope.
"I mean it, Ricky."
Cheryl pushed and strained at the door, and the wheels of my cleaning cart squeaked as they rolled. I blew on the paper to dry it. The cursive was small, but neat, legible.
The wooden door swung open. I heard its steel handle clang against the stone wall.
I paid no more attention to Cheryl because now I could read the two lines of the note:
You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002.
Time to honor it.
Without thinking, purely automatic, I walked back into that filthy toilet stall and flushed the note away.
But not the ticket.
Excerpted from Big Machine by Victor LaValle. Copyright 2009 by Victor LaValle. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.