THE BIG MACHINE by Victor LaValle

Book Quote:

“Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (MAR 26, 2010)

The Big Machine is a genre-busting romp through the fields of good and evil. Part mystery, part science fiction, part philosophy, and part theology, this book takes us on a heady journey from underneath the earth’s surface to the wonderment of the universe.

Ricky Rice is a janitor for a bus station in Utica, New York when he gets a puzzling envelope delivered to him. It has a note inside that says “You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it”. He wonders how anyone knew about the promise and how they could have found out? Who are these people? Along with the note is a bus ticket to Burlington, Vermont. Ricky decides to go but says to himself, “What kind of a black man accepts an unsigned invitation to the whitest state there is?”

Upon arriving in Burlington, Ricky is picked up at the bus station and escorted into the deep woods where he finds a small and cozy cottage awaiting him. For a man used to flop houses and shared one-room apartments, this is nirvana. Also on the property is The Washburn Library, a huge and beautiful structure. Ricky gradually finds out that he is a part of a secret society searching for “the Voice,” an unearthly sound that only few humans have been privy to hearing. He is part of a group that he calls “The Unlikely Scholars.”  They are unlikely because all of them have a past. They are made up of ex-cons, drug addicts, prostitutes, the homeless and the disenfranchised. Ricky himself has a history of heroin addiction. He’s been clean for three years but still totes six bags of heroin and a syringe with him – just in case. Additionally, all of the Unlikely Scholars are black, both male and female.

Gradually, Ricky finds out the history of the Washburn library and this society that has made him an honorary member. Judah Washburn, a freed slave, once heard “the Voice” and the Voice led him to an underground tunnel that went from the west coast of the United States to Vermont. Along with hearing the Voice, Judah also found millions of dollars of Spanish bullion. He founded this society to perpetuate his search for the Voice. He wanted to know its origins, what it meant and why it spoke to some people and not others.

Ricky and the other Unlikely Scholars are under the tutelage of “the Dean” who once heard the Voice himself. Each Scholar has their own office and each day newspapers from around the country are delivered to them. Their job is to peruse the newspapers and find articles that can somehow lead to the Voice. How to identify which articles are meaningful and which are not is a real puzzle to Ricky and he spends days scratching his head. He enjoys reading the journals of the past Scholars.

One day the Dean requests that Ricky join another Scholar, Adele Henry, on a super-secret mission to find someone who is a threat to the society. On this trip, Ricky and Adele meet with all types of dangers, both worldly and otherworldly. They find themselves in sewers pursued by the Devil of the Marsh. They meet angels as well. They also have run-ins with human bad guys with plans to destroy all that the Scholars stand for.

An aspect of this novel that I found interesting is that chapters about the Unlikely Scholars are interspersed with chapters about Ricky’s life. He was brought up in a cult called “The Washerwomen.” This cult operated out of an apartment building in the borough of Queens in New York. It billed itself as Christian but it had a different bible and belief system. The cult had an enormous impact on Ricky’s life. We also find out what happened in Cedar Rapids where Ricky made his promise.

LaValle is a wonderful wordsmith and I loved his descriptions. He describes two brothers as having “faces like Boston Terriers, somber eyes that were a little too large, and jowly cheeks that only emphasized their frowns.” His writing is brisk and descriptive. His characters are the dispossessed brought up to a higher rung in the food chain, an aspect of the book I really appreciated. The Unlikely Scholars are a group to be reckoned with and appreciated, pasts and all. Some of the science fiction seemed too over the top for me but the rest of the book was so interesting, I could easily forgive that.

This is a book for readers who love science fiction and mysteries. It is also for readers like myself who may want to wander outside their comfort zone and try another genre. This book is comprised of many genres and is often surreal or “trippy.” It is a mind-bender and a roller coaster ride to the far side.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 33 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (March 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another SciFi book that deals with race:Futureland by Walter Mosley

And another that is a SciFi thriller:

Improbable by Adam Fawer

And another new author:

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon


March 26, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Mystery/Suspense, Speculative (Beyond Reality), Thriller/Spy/Caper

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