The Big Machine
by Victor LaValle
Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by D. Scot Miller
Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, opens with a look at Ricky Rice, a middle-aged porter in a bus depot in Utica, New York. It’s 2005, and the world is about to go broke. Ricky is a downtrodden sanitation worker with a shady past. He’s never seen better days, and none seem to be forthcoming. That is, until he receives a mysterious note reminding him of the promise he made: a one-way bus ticket to Vermont’s northeast kingdom. On the bus to the frigid north, we hear LaValle’s refrain from an alcoholic goblin on a tear to his captive audience: “Human beings are no damn good. We even worse than animals. We like …”The ellipsis just dangles, from the book’s first section on.
Big Machine is a crafty book. Every page is a precise and illuminating reveal—a large veil playfully lifted from the reader’s initial conceptions of black/white, good/evil, and ultimately, salvation. Each chapter is a possible spoiler. A tough job for the reviewer, to be sure. Especially one who has been anticipating such a novel (and working on such a novel) for years.
Behold the invisible! You shall see unknown worlds: Ricky is recruited, along with six other recovering addicts and petty criminals to become a paranormal investigator. All of them have heard The Voice at the deep bottom of their shoddy existences and answered it with the promise . Like generations of the wretched of the earth before them, they are inducted into a secret society of “negros” (“I won’t say African Americans, ” says Rice, “it’s too damn long”) to find The Voice and figure out what it wants.
From cleaning out bathroom stalls in work boots and T-shirts, Ricky becomes a dandy, wearing the finest clothes that the 1940s and ’50s could provide. Fitted in the best vines, he makes his way to (where else?) the Bay Area to confront a murder-suicide cult, and his own monstrous past.
Far from a standard, dry examination of doubt and faith, LaValle’s allegorical approach is sweeping and swashbuckling. Big Machine takes us from Ricky’s idyllic childhood—sweet as saccharine, with a black tar of burn—to his romantic nadir, dying in a puddle of piss and shit in the basement of a house owned by a man named Murder.
LaValle has named Shirley Jackson and Ambrose Pierce as influences, along with those he calls “the Black Eccentrics”: Ishmael Reed, Gayle Jones, Darth Vader. His approach to gothic horror adds black humor and a new element of ferocity to the AfroSurreal aesthetic.
There’s a lot of tearing in this book. Flesh is peeled, pried, burned, and punctured. Torture plays a prominent role. Children are exploited, souls are gnawed away, and spirits are broken. Bullets fly, bodies are wrenched, mauled, mutilated, and discarded—so much so that LaValle’s main refrain takes on greater weight when it reappears, in extended form, from the mouth of one of Big Machine’s main characters. “Human beings are no damn good!,” the character says. “The despised become the despicable. God damn! We worse than animals! We’re like monsters.”
Monsters. Big Machine has those too. Some wear suits, some wear shawls, some move between the shadows with vise-grip hands. The story is neither miserable nor grotesque, and it is proof of LaValle’s genius that sympathy and forgiveness extends to the whole pitiful lot.
Mos Def contributed a blurb to Big Machine, and the book’s blurbs are telling: according to them, LaValle is Marquez mixed with Poe, or Marakami mixed with Ellison, or Bosch having a baby with Lenny Bruce. But I feel they all miss the mark—I’m here to tell you that Victor LaValle is a believer in the unseen world. He has been there, and what he has brought back has affirmed my belief too.
In a word, Victor LaValle is the shit! A hybrid of low lifes and high ideals, his Big Machine runs on suicide cults and the voice of God taking you straight to the bowels of The Bay and the monsters that lurk without and within. Hard as a gun muzzle to the jaw, soft as the caress of an angel’s wing, this is the first novel of the coming AfroSurreal age.