Review: Big Machine by Victor LaValle

I read this for the Quirky Brown Reading Challenge because it’s horror fic and I thought it might be a good way to find my way into the labyrinth of books about people of color. As a (mostly) white reader, it’s not easy to assimilate the cultural experiences of other races, particularly as they occur in my own country, so speculative fiction looked to be a good starting point since it’s familiar ground for me.

I have to say that Victor LaValle takes no prisoners. Without actually placing any blame, he is unflinching in describing the lives of black Americans who have lived outside our social boundaries. The protagonist, Ricky Rice, is a dry junkie who nevertheless keeps a syringe and half a dozen bags of heroin nearby, just in case. Adele was a prostitute who encountered exactly the sort of john all hookers pray never to meet. And they have both suffered for who and what they are. Yet both seem aware that their pasts have made them stronger than most people ever imagine being, or having to be, and in this case, they’re lucky that’s true.

They both work for an organization which at first looks like your typical secret society with a mysterious head, and no clearly defined jobs, and with a near-religious aura, something Ricky is used to, having grown up, literally, in a strange Christian cult. Hesitant at first, Ricky takes to his new job and new place in life. He’s smart and surprisingly well-educated, having been home schooled by his parents and the rest of the cult. He likes what he’s doing, and when he has the opportunity to do more for the society, he accepts the assignment as a kind of honor. You have to know that’s not going to end well, particularly when you begin to realize that this secret society is a lot different from what we’re used to. They don’t have infinite funds; they dress in old, made over clothes and have to barter for office supplies. This is secret society on a shoestring, and it’s jarring. Fascinating but jarring.

Ricky’s adventures in completing his assignment go from bad to worse. At first they’re simply uncomfortable, but quickly become horrific and terrifying, and the worst part is he simply never quite knows who to trust or believe in. There’s a thread of paranoia that runs through Ricky, a thread that is spun from his cult childhood and his life as a poor black man, and a drug addict, in America. Ricky has reason to question what happens to him. The answers he finds are less than satisfying, and therein lies one of the big problems with this book; it’s deeply depressing. In spite of a vague sense of hope that remains even at the end, the world LaValle shows us is a gray, depressing one, filled with cut-rate heroes and villains, sad people and sad, weak spirits.

It’s fortunate that Victor LaValle can write as well as he does. A lesser author would have lost me early on, but LaValle grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go, and I’m grateful in spite of the sadness I feel when I think back on the reading experience. My horizons have expanded, and that’s always a good thing. And I’ve read something that poked and prodded at my emotions and my attitudes, and I think that’s what art should do to us. Be prepared to carry the weight of this story on your own shoulders for a time. But if you come out of it not loving Ricky and wishing him all the luck in the world, I’d be surprised. I hope that he’s well and maybe even a little happy somewhere out there in fictionlandia. He sure deserves his measure of peace.

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