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Welcome to the Machine

Big MachineBig Machine by Victor LaValle

Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford

Attempting to categorize Victor LaValle's Big Machine is an exercise in futility. Take the opening lines:

Don't look for dignity in public bathrooms. The most you'll find is privacy and sticky floors. But when my boss gave me the glossy envelope, the bathroom was the first place I ran. What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job.

It's your standard hardboiled-detective-novel opening, albeit one where the protagonist is a janitor named Ricky Rice, but the tone is unmistakable and the introduction of the mysterious envelope right off the bat creates an immediate sense of intrigue and expectation. Also, the chapters are fairly short, allowing for the customary dramatic breaks every two to three pages, and how could someone named Ricky Rice not be a gumshoe of some sort?

But by the time the fifth chapter has ended, Big Machine has begun to resemble something more like a David Lynch film than a Raymond Chandler novel. It turns out that the envelope had a vague invitation with instructions to Ricky in it, as well as personal details that nobody should know. Having only a crummy job cleaning bathrooms tying him down, Ricky follows the instructions, hops on a Greyhound, and ends up being picked up at the station by a huge man named Lake. He is taken to a secret library where he and other "unsavory" types are commissioned to research paranormal reports from various newspapers around the U.S., for purposes that are better left discovered during your first read.

This detective-paranormal mash-up might scream "cheesy X-Files episode" to you, but Ricky's voice is what holds the book together. Stories like this don't work unless you like the narrator, and Ricky's first-person narration is equal parts begrudging and tender, not to mention hilarious. LaValle does a terrific job of introducing mystical, spiritual, and otherwise ethereal themes and ideas through Ricky's no-nonsense lens. Ricky doesn't cut himself or anybody else any slack, and when seemingly magical events transpire around him (and, believe me, there are lots of those to be found), they're made much more believable by virtue of his constant interior monologue, which yields such gems as this:

I've described the color, but there's still the stench to explain. Imagine a dying mule vomiting a soiled diaper all over your sweaty feet. The pipe smelled worse than that. Plus rancid milk was in there somewhere. What a bouquet. Our sniffled breathing made us both sound panicked as our legs sloshed through the pancake batter.

Toward the middle of the novel, LaValle begins to incorporate Ricky's backstory from his youth into interstitial chapters woven into the main plot. This serves the dual purpose of providing more insight into why Ricky sees the world the way he does and deepening the thematic tension between the physical and spiritual worlds that forms the backbone of the novel's plot. It's also an ingenious way of forcing the reader to keep turning those pages. Whenever the main plot threatens to lose some of its momentum, the story of Ricky's childhood, by turns fascinating and frightening, is enough to make up the difference (thanks for the late nights, LaValle). Surrounded by adults who hold extremely eccentric religious beliefs, young Ricky already is in full possession of his trademark wit but doesn't have the emotional maturity to back it up. Suffice it to say, events transpire that force his hand when it comes to maturation, and LaValle creates some of his most indelible imagery to capture the moment in Ricky's youth when his childhood officially ends. It's a chilling scene that I won't spoil here, and it serves to establish a legitimate reason for Ricky's hard-won sense of humor and his pursuit of the unknown that forces him onward.

I feel completely confident in recommending Big Machine to anyone in need of a page-turner unlike any you've read before. Here you'll find science fiction, hard literature, mystery, horror, and even some romance as an added bonus. Give the first chapter a quick read, and tell me you don't love Ricky Rice already.

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