January 1999

The brightest voices of the new year

Colson Whitehead, Michael Cahill

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As you hunker down for the long winter, take heart, for three new fiction debuts will help you make it through the cold. This season's theme seems to be surrealism, as each of these intriguing first books is a little off center. Mix that with extremely well-written prose and these debuts will have you wishing the winter days were longer.

In The Intuitionist, the most innovative, creative, and visionary new novel in a few years, Colson Whitehead takes readers into a world where the phrase going up takes on powerful metaphoric meaning. Lila Mae Watson is the city's first female African-American elevator inspector–a woman who relies on her senses and feelings rather than hard physical evidence when traversing and examining a timeless, Kafka-esque city fixated on verticality. With an important guild election coming, Watson is on the side of the Intuitionists, the minority party of the city's powerful elevator operators union. The Empiricists, fueled by bigotry and a desire to maintain ruling power, blame Watson (who has a spotless inspection record) for an elevator free-fall, an accident that is not supposed to happen. The novel traces Watson's attempts to clear her name, and as she is doing so, she discovers numerous secrets that have been selfishly hidden by the heads of both factions.

A stunning contemplation on race, The Intuitionist brings to mind the strength of Ralph Ellison and the quirky brilliance of Thomas Pynchon. Whitehead crafts an entire culture around elevators, complete with specifications, internecine philosophical battles, founding fathers, and corporate shenanigans. But what makes The Intuitionist so darn good is the way Whitehead balances his concerns. By turns literate, thrilling, comic, and poignant, Whitehead lifts readers into this strange world and never allows identity politics to turn the book into an ideological jag. His prose pulses across the page, seamlessly jumping characters, time, style, and events. Whether with one-word thoughts or complex, descriptive sentences, Whitehead draws readers into this fantastic world of verticality and races us to the top. After The Intuitionist, an elevator ride will never be the same.


When Jack Costello secretly purchases a bugging unit to record his tension-filled parents in Michael Cahill's A Nixon Man, Jack doesn't really understand what he is about to hear. Jack's father is a Nixon man in a quickly changing San Francisco in 1972. As William Costello preaches the right way to live sit up straight, look people in the eye, never underestimate the power of a handshake, and respect those who lead us his son's Record-A-Jac, a surveillance device purchased from a comic book, tells a different story. The feisty, confused 11-year-old begins tapping the phones, dramatizing the Watergate investigators he idolizes on television. But like the Watergate Tapes and their 18 minutes of silence, Jack learns that some things are better left unheard. He begins to understand the tensions in his parents' marriage, the toll his retarded 16-year-old sister Macie takes on his family and their plans for her. More importantly, he realizes what it means to be the son of a Nixon man. Unlike many fictional accounts of the era, Cahill shifts the focus away from 18-year-old young men and Vietnam, and gives us a narrator who was 11 when the Watergate hearings were at their zenith. Jack Costello's voice precocious, rebellious, yet still naive infuses A Nixon Man with a quiet innocence, allowing the events of the time to filter through Jack's eyes.

Perhaps most charming is how Jack fights against his childhood, trying to wean himself from television and toys through typical adolescent boy behavior such as streaking, sneaking puffs of pot, and devising secret plans. The world around him, complex, political, and dangerous, offers Jack only clues about what is going on, but he persists in his quest to know. And the knowledge he gathers means a quick end to the carefree days and the simple life of a child. Cahill writes effortlessly, filling the pages with acute observations of the time period, from toys to television shows, windbreakers to music. His prose evokes the wonderment of discovery, while never neglecting the emotional cost of that discovery. It would have been very easy for Cahill to lean too hard on the similarities between the characters in the story and the national events that led to the resignation of Nixon. He uses Watergate, however, as a thematic backdrop, employing it to further round his well-developed characters. Bittersweet, uproariously funny, and tremendously written, A Nixon Man delivers the laughs and heartaches of growing up in equal doses, in turn providing one of the season's best new reads.


For a trip through post-modern cool and highly rationalized, individually created bureaucracy, take a spin with David Grand's peculiar Louse. Herman Q. Louse works for Herbert Horatio Poppy Blackwell, a fictionalized version of eccentric capitalist hermit Howard Hughes. From atop a casino, Poppy has built an insulated empire, full of idiosyncrasies, wheelbarrows of prescription drugs, and unmitigated paranoia. Louse, Poppy's confidante, attendant, and valet, can't even remember when he didn't work for the reclusive Poppy; in fact, he is sure that he has been drugged to forget his previous life. Like Whitehead's Intuitionist, Grand's world is eerily invented, full of conspiracies, shadow conspiracies, and characters with names such as Crane, Lonesome, and Barnum. Grand's curt, deliberately stilted first-person prose mirrors the feelings of the mystery, enchantment, and claustrophobia of Louse's world, while lending the novel a chilly detachment.

Grand's work fits squarely in the tradition of Kafka, where individuals are the pawns of unseen controlling forces, expression of one's personal opinions is not an option, and private machinations have far-reaching impact. Wickedly funny and equally freaky, Louse is a surprisingly invigorating book. Grand's high narrative style, sizzling imagination, and twisted nervousness endows Louse with its unmistakably fresh voice.

Mark Luce is a writer in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Get the Books

The Intuitionist

The Intuitionist

By Colson Whitehead
Price $19.95
ISBN 9780385492997
A Nixon Man

A Nixon Man

By Colson Whitehead, Michael Cahill
Price $22.95
ISBN 9780312187491


By Colson Whitehead, Michael Cahill, David Grand
Price $23.95
ISBN 9781559704496

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