This. THIS is why I love Facebook* – crowdsourcing. I post on a Thursday afternoon that I’m looking for a book suggestion and get a few suggestions. And THEN Jon-Paul posts Big Machine by Victor LaValle.
Hol-eee cow! I was hooked right away, and it definitely lived up to my request for a page-turner. After finishing it, I posted that I really loved it and that it would be easy to write a review. Now, I’m not so sure about that. I don’t quite know how much I want to reveal about Big Machine, because the twists and turns of the story are really unusual.
I can tell you about the protagonist, Ricky Rice. Now a middle-aged man who works in a train station, as a boy Ricky was the sole survivor of a suicide cult. But the event that opens the novel is the receipt of a note:
You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002.
Time to honor it.
Enclosed with the note is a bus ticket to Vermont where Ricky meets a group of people similar to himself and also summoned by a vow once given. These people are inducted into the Unlikely Scholars, a group called together to find meaning, pattern and answers in newspapers and reports.
I won’t go further in the plot because it is complicated. LaValle spends a lot of time in Ricky’s and other characters’ pasts, and so the story becomes much more than just the supernatural themes that progress. Ricky’s seen a lot, and his world-weary take on the world allows LaValle to comment on life.
…you’ll understand why I always took the stairs.
Ten times a day if I was sent on a lot of errands. Up and down so often that I really came to love that crappy gray stairwell. Half the overhead lights didn’t work, and sometimes garbage littered the landings. The perfume of urine often filled the air, and yet I knew the environment with sweet intimacy. How cold the handrail felt in the winter, the sound of my skin slipping along the metal in a low -swiff- whenever I went down. The chips of a cracked stair sprinkling the ones below it like rock salt on a winter road.
It seems impossible now, but at that time I thought of that stairwell as a kind of cloister. Where I could find a special quiet. You can’t predict the places where you’ll encounter the unknowable.
Big Machine has a lot of unknowable, supernatural, and truth as well. I saw several reviews that mentioned the X-Files, and I also felt it was similar to Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis. Both showed us undercurrents in our world or worlds that are parallel to ours, where things are just different. Whether things are different in a good way or a bad way remains to be seen, you just have to turn the page.
(* Oh Twitter, I’ll always love you too.)