“Big Machine” by Victor LaValle
Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks
New York, 2010
In all of the reviewing I have done over the years, I don’t ever recall using a statement from an author’s acknowledgment page.
When I read the last paragraph and then went back to look at the last page of the narrative itself, there appeared to be some covert, even tendentious wrapping up, some moral statement LaValle seemed to be making in this part allegory, part fantasy, part gothic, part magic-realism, part gruesome, grim-reality novel.
LaValle’s last tender acknowledgement:
Last, I’d like to thank the folks who rescued me more than ten years ago now. The real-world basis for the Washburn Library. You invited me out and cleaned me up. I was a mess but you had faith. I’m still grateful. Your secret is safe with me.
On the last page of the novel, Ricky Rice, the protagonist and narrator, tells his readers that he admired Joseph and Mary for their patience. He addresses his child yet-to-be-born; “Strip away all the magic and what does religion teach? There’s something greater than you in this world….And when I get too puffed up…I rely on what the Washerwomen taught me. Doubt grounds up my illusion. It makes me humble. And that’s a gift.”
Doubt, we are told several times in novel, is, in fact, the big machine, that grinds up all the delusions of life.
I start at the end of the novel, literally and figuratively, because I believe that LaValle’s fictional work here is a living testament of survivability, of being humbled by the ordeals of life, and of being “cleaned up” by those ordeals.
Ricky Rice, LaValle’s central character and narrator, has all the traits of a ghetto loser. He works at a bus and train station in Utica, New York; he is black; his parents belong to a Christian cult, the Washerwomen, who massacre their own families in Florida and steal church funds.
When the Washerwomen flee to the North, it is there where Ricky’s parents join them in proselytizing their message throughout the U.S. that all Christian churches are broken. They take it upon themselves to rewrite the Bible.
In a brutal, take-no-hostages scene reminiscent of the Waco massacre, the Washerwomen cult defends itself against the police by killing some of the children. Ricky, the untiring survivor, manages to escape.
Ricky is also a drug-addict who later becomes a mule and is almost killed when a family friend betrays him to a group of drug thugs and is himself betrayed by the same thugs. His friend dies but Ricky, the artful dodger, again escapes.
Ricky is one among many chosen to work off their crimes by being invited to a mysterious library in Vermont, Washburn Library. It remains a Stephen-King-like mystery how the Library finds out about the characters they have chosen to purge their lives, but they have all made “promises,” that some of them reveal as they research newspaper articles to find hidden messages from the “Voice” that over two-hundred years ago once spoke to the originator of the Library, Judah Washburn.
The Voice that led Judah Washburn to Vermont continues to remain silent. The team of secret-criminals-turned-”Unlikely Scholars” must try to find some hidden revelations from the Voice in the stranger-than-fiction stories they can find in random newspapers throughout the country.
Ricky and Lady Gray (Adele Henry), are given the task of hunting down a former employee of the Washburn Library, Solomon Gray, who has founded his own cult. He becomes a public embarrassment to the Library, particularly the Dean, who is afraid that Gray’s public suicide bombings and revolutionary tactics will lead the police back to the Washburn estate which has never paid income taxes.
Much of the novel takes place in Garland, California, Solomon Gray’s geographical setting for his own revolution. It is there that Ricky and Adele battle with the Devils-of-the-Marsh-turned-Swamp Angels, both real and allegorical figures of destiny, who are both enemy and ally on the journey of Ricky and Adele to rid the Washburn Library of its enemies.
The Swamp Angels, the good guys, ultimately win out. Solomon Gray is killed and Snooky Washburn, the family heir,who had planned to shut down the library, is also eliminated.
Ricky Rice again survives. He and Adele flee back east awaiting the new Swamp-Angel child Ricky has been impregnated with (yes, I did say Ricky—given the magic-realism world Lavalle weaves into his novel, everything, I mean everything, is possible).
I was struck by how many scenes in LaValle’s novel have a kind of rescue/survival meme. Ricky and all of his cohort criminals at the Washburn Library have survived their secret ordeals but still need to be rescued, to be cleaned up by researching preternatual stories for secret messages from the Voice.
Adele is another survivor. She retells an incident that happened to her as a young street prostitute. Lavalle weaves the story into brief, coldly-detached statements of the serial killer who leaves Adele in a bathtub believing that she is dead. She makes a promise to herself “to get them before they get you.”
Ricky, of course, is the central survivor. He survives an abandoning father (there is an incredibly profound scene when Ricky, as a child, keeps working on his father’s guilt for sending him back to the orphanage); a group of suicidal religious revolutionaries; a near-death experience in a failed drug deal; and, in his final “quest-ordeal,” he survives the pursuit of the Washburn Library’s enemies.
“Big Machine” is a very dense novel. Characters wander in and out of the narrative. New events pop up with the arbitrariness of Midwest tornado. And the reader is consistently required to suspend disbelief as the author insists upon mixing the magical and preternatural forces of Marsh Devils and Swamp Angels with the grim-noir realism of mass murder and brutal sado-masochism. On that score, no one can say that Lavalle hasn’t done his best to break down the old barriers between fantasy and reality.
We are given some existential relief and reason for hope at the end of the novel when Ricky simply says about himself and Adele: “I guess we could lock ourselves in the bathroom and hide. Let someone else face the fight. But we’re not going to do that.”
In LaValle’s fictional world, the glass, in the end, remains half full.