Post Road Magazine #20

Victor LaValle's BIG MACHINE

Laura van den Berg

Victor LaValle's Big Machine was an impulse buy at the bookstore. I had just finished a day's work on my own book-in-progress and was wandering the shelves aimlessly, looking for I-didn't-know-what, my reading mood at once particular and inexpressible. I picked up and set aside book after book, unsatisfied. That is, until I came across Big Machine. As it would turn out, LaValle's latest novel was precisely what I was in the mood for. While I'd been hearing about LaValle, and Big Machine in particular, for a while I'd never read his work, but a jacket copy touting a suicide cult survivor, mysterious letters, and "a band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God" hooked me immediately (how could it not?)—and also left me wondering how LaValle would manage to pull all this off.

From the first page, I fell happily under the spell of the novel's protagonist, Ricky Rice, and soon I was deep in the world of janitorial duties at Union Station in Utica, New York, and secret orders in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and haunted pasts, deep in the loopy and sad world of Big Machine. Ricky Rice is a deliciously layered protagonist, his voice at once generous, cutting, funny, and painful, and this is a novel of big ideas and big heart. In the novel's opening chapter, Ricky is summoned to the Washburn Library, where he joins a band of misfits that become known as the Unlikely Scholars, all there to do mysterious and possibly crucial work under the shadowy scrutiny of a man they call the dean. In a different kind of novel, LaValle could have spent the entirety of Big Machine exploring the complexities and contours of this peculiar compound, but Ricky's story is far more expansive and ambitious; it is a story that compels this reader to offer up one of the highest compliments that can be paid: I've never come across anything quite like it.

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