Ten years ago, Victor LaValle’s debut story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus, chronicled a group of kids growing up in New York, a modest crew that one narrator called the “future janitors and supermarket managers, plumber’s assistants and deliverymen of the United States.” They did the kinds of things kids in the city do: have rivalries and fallings-out, roam in packs from borough to borough, check out hookers on the West Side Highway, grow up, and move on. The stories were shot through with gritty humor, and—particularly in the case of the recurring character Anthony James, who would go on to star in LaValle’s first novel, The Ecstatic (2002)—they seemed somehow unimpeachably real, as if the urgent mission to capture the truth about growing up were more important to the writer than style or even, at times, fashioning a coherent collection.
Like the kids in Slapboxing with Jesus, the men and women who populate Big Machine—middle-aged, African-American, coming to terms with troubled pasts—are also of the modest, janitorial ilk. Indeed, LaValle’s hero is one Ricky Rice, whom we first encounter as he pretends to spiff up the men’s room at an upstate bus station. (He’s hiding from his boss.) But instead of roaming streets, Ricky and his associates wander from coast to coast, passing through the more outré reaches of contemporary America.
“What kind of black man accepts an unsigned invitation to the whitest state there is?” Ricky muses after he receives a mysterious envelope during one of his shifts at the bus station. The state in question is Vermont, and the invitation feels more like a summons. It comes packaged with a bus ticket, and so Ricky—native New Yorker and former junkie—hangs up his mop and journeys to the Washburn Library, a shadowy compound in the upper reaches of Vermont that has the claustrophobic, hothouse feel of a writer’s colony like Yaddo or MacDowell. Here, he assesses his newfound compatriots: “Nine black people in the Northeast Kingdom. Sounds like the start of a gruesome old folk tale.”
And so it is. The band of assorted former miscreants who have ended up at the Washburn Library include former prostitutes and identity thieves, all of whom seem to have no idea why they’ve been called there or what, exactly, the point of being there is. But no one seems to mind. As a nattily attired man called the Dean informs them, they are the newest class of “Unlikely Scholars,” and they will now devote their days to archival labors, scanning the nation’s dailies for stories about unexplained phenomena (ghosts, space aliens) buried in the human-interest pages, crowded out by headlines about Iraq, natural disasters, and hedge-fund calamities. “What others threw away,” Ricky reflects, “we savored.” The work was “pseudoscience, like phrenology or investment banking.” Going back to the late eighteenth century, the aggregated clip work of generations of Washburn librarians adds up to what Ricky calls “an atlas of the afterlife” and a hunt for the existence of the spirit force Washburnians call simply the Voice.
The tale goes into out-there overdrive, as Ricky and his fellow Unlikely Scholar bodacious Adele Henry are sent by the Dean to hunt down Solomon Clay, the leader of a potential breakaway group that haunts the sewers of the Bay Area, where Clay’s been busy organizing an army of indigent converts and preaching his own Washburnesque gospel. In flashbacks, we learn of Ricky’s tumultuous ’70s childhood in yet another religious cult and of Adele’s previous, violent encounter with one Snooky Washburn, the cult’s hidden bankroller, as story lines begin to braid, giving the tale an infernal momentum that mirrors Ricky’s own headlong plunge into an improbable realmcomplete with diaphanous angel devils that look like stingrays flittering about—where superstition, race, conspiracy, and violence converge.
Does this belief-mad world remind you—minus, perhaps, the stingray creatures—more than a little of modern America? Indeed. Big Machine offers a dark lens on the cult-loving country that brought you the Manson family, the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate. Yet LaValle is as much wry fabulist as he is dogged allegorist, and his flights of grim fancy are tethered by acute observations: “The poor aren’t defeated, we’re domesticated”; “taking heroin is like sinking into a tapioca hammock.” He can be awfully funny, too. “Blow it out your ass, Redd Foxx” is a typical Ricky riposte; “Maccabees or Hosea or Geritol” is his thumbnail inventory of the Old Testament.
By the end, we’ve learned that Ricky has been penning this bizarre account as a testament to the child growing inside him—presumably one of those angel-devil creatures. Is the fetus real or yet another withdrawal symptom of an untrustworthy addict? Ultimately, it’s all subjective—you know, like global warming and evolution. The big machine of the novel’s title turns out to be doubt, a powerful force that “grinds up the delusions of women and men.” But for the Washburnians—and millions of Americans—this isn’t the skepticism that provides a firewall against superstition. In LaValle’s devilish fable about one pregnant man’s violent encounter with belief, doubt is the engine that makes faith possible, rendering the visible world—of science, social hierarchies, and New York Times headlines—a load of cultish hooey.
Mark Rozzo is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn, NY.