Big Machine by Victor LaValle. Published 2009. ISBN #978-0-385-52799-6

Big Machine by Victor LaValle. Published 2009. ISBN #978-0-385-52799-6

I loved this book, but if one viewed art and literature as a pure exercise in like finding like, as compatibility based on computerized dating algorithm, by all rights this should have been a mutually agreed walk-away between reader and writer. It is written in the first person (I write in the third), it is gritty, urban and modern (I favor works vested in historical perspective, preferably written sometime before 1982 or thereabouts), and it is infused with a strong male narrator who (I have been told by commercial book marketers) should be off-putting to my delicate, female ears.

Poppycock. And I use that word advisedly.

LaValle is vitally talented, and his precise use of language creates its own dimension in his storytelling. "Big Machine" is the story of Ricky Rice, a societal drop-out and drug addict, who is vested with purpose by a shadowy organization attempting to uncover nothing less than truth, the inner workings of the universe, the "Big Machine". The narrative is a rich interaction between modern African American culture and its roots in oral history tradition and mysticism, blending spiritual with actual in a subtle way that touches on these things without hitting one over the head.

And, there's swamp angels.

As a writer, this is where LaValle's prose really stands out for me, when he describes the fantastic in a way that makes it real and tactile, as in this excerpt:

"The swamp angels used the wind to move. They didn't fly, they glided. Sticking their chests out until their upper bodies took on the shape of a sail and trapped breezes against their backs. This lifted them up so high they almost floated off, but before this happened, they'd anchor themselves to the ground by digging the tips of their thin feet into cracks in the concrete...Sliding along the rail until they reached the end and hopped off, were sucked backward while in midair, and then floated toward the ground. Here they caught at more cracks in the sidewalk and did the same grip-toed tiptoe again."

Describing ethereal acrobatics like this in a way that is elegantly simple and playful is hard to do, to hit that believable note, but LaValle does it effortlessly in descriptions like this throughout the book. His characters are riveting in their realism and his storytelling exciting in its unexpected turns, and this makes "Big Machine" impossible to put down, and, once finishing it, impossible to not read again, as I did, late on a Saturday night, over pizza slices and chilled, cheap, white wine. Great books create great experiences of reading them, purely for the joy of doing so, and I will always remember where I was, and what I was doing, when I read this book, and there is simply no higher recommendation I can give than that.