The Short Version: Ricky Rice, former junkie and current janitor, receives an envelope with a cryptic message and a bus ticket. He takes the plunge into the unknown, surfacing at the Washburn Library in Vermont along with other stray souls, where they become Unlikely Scholars, looking into strange phenomena around the country that might have to do with the Voice of God. Rice ends up in California, hunting down a rogue scholar, and ends up in wayyyyy over his head. Did I mention he’s the only survivor of a wacked-out cult that he grew up in? And that there are Indian legends and more cults involved?
The Review: This book is one of those terrific instances of recognizing a specific season that the novel was meant for. In this case, even more specific – late January. Big Machine was all over the top 10 lists two years ago and so I finally picked it up sometime last spring (I think). However, after two attempts to start it in the spring, I realized that it wasn’t meant to be read in the spring. The beginning of the novel was so inextricably linked in my mind with the winter – and I’m talking the long-haul part of winter, not the first flush of snow or the glow that surrounds Christmas. So, as January wound down, I picked up this book – and it clicked. The first few pages, which I’d become quite familiar with, suddenly flowed properly. I swirled down this particular rabbit hole rather quickly… and then something strange happened.
This book has all the hallmarks of being a terrific psychological supernatural novel – something akin to The Shining in the way there was never really anything specific other than the general malevolence of The Overlook. Similarly, there seemed to be some grand conspiracy… some creepy force of some kind, working behind the scenes… but the book seemed to build up to the idea that this force would remain unknown. It would just be. The Unlikely Scholars search for it and research it and try their best to understand it… but there would be no physical manifestations. I was happy with this – the idea of pulling in the washed-up dregs of society and dressing them up in snappy classic stylings and inspiring them to do this work… there was something twisted but delightful about it. Having Ricky Rice as a narrator was also great – if I take nothing else away from this book, his scrappy and slightly undefinable voice will be with me for a while. LaValle seems to (judging by the Acknowledgements at the end) have some knowledge of the life Rice led – maybe heroin, maybe not, I don’t know and don’t need to know. But he is convincing. He isn’t a crazy strung out nutjob, he’s a fully realized human being with flaws and positive attributes both.
Sadly, the book (around… a little before halfway, I suppose) begins to collapse around him, slowly. By the time you reach the end – which I will admit I pushed through because I was finding myself so disenchanted by it – you will be unable to look back at the rest of the novel with the adoration those early stages deserved.
This is because LaValle tries to turn this from a vague horror story into a real one – but he never fully commits. Sure, The Dean is this shadowy creepy authority figure… but I didn’t buy his ‘evil’ act for a minute. He was more convincing as a curmudgeonly, vaguely psychic old guy who runs The Library. Sure, he had all the hallmarks of an eventual villain reveal, but LaValle never committed and so at the end, when SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The Dean reveals to Ricky that he foresaw all of this and the story turns into a “we’re on the run” tale for the last ten pages or so as Ricky and Adele flee The Dean’s influence… it was just such a cop-out. It didn’t fit. Similarly, the revelation of the Devils of the Marsh or Swamp Angels or whatever the hell you want to call them… they’re this creepy supernatural Indian legend that turn out to be true. And it seems so ridiculous once they finally start to play into the story. Sure, when they’re vaguely terrorizing the potentially-hallucinating Ricky, they seem like something out of Lovecraft. I loved that – they were vague and as a result they were creepy. However, as M. Night Shyamalan learned the hard way, once you reveal them to the audience, they’re rarely as scary as what your audience was imagining.
That, I think is the big flaw in this book. LaValle creates a great atmosphere and clearly had imagination to spare… but then he doesn’t know how to get this big machine he’s invented (pun completely intended) running smoothly – pieces keep falling off and the whole thing becomes far more patchwork-y than he’d planned.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Squarely in the middle of the road, despite early promise. I really disliked most of the plot points after around page 200 and Ricky’s strange pregnancy was the final straw. I was convinced that he was just imagining it, that it was some sort of strange result of a drug he’d been hit with… and when it turned out to be real, I found it utterly ridiculous. After that, everything with Solomon Clay and his cult just seemed stock and silly. Still, that early promise was something quite special. I’d love to see LaValle turn his attentions to a truly terrifying novel – because he might be able to come up with something that can stand up to King’s creepiest. The question is whether or not he will.