'Big Machine' Churns Out A Twisting Collage Of Crime

Big Machine
Big Machine
By Victor LaValle
Paperback, 400 pages
Spiegel and Grau
List Price: $15
Read An Excerpt

I like what Victor LaValle is doing. Let me rephrase. I love what he is doing. His third book — Big Machine — is, itself, a big machine.

Its ambition is epic, characters flawed and unpredictable, plot fantastical. As I read this novel, I realized: I think of myself as possessing a lot of certainty about my politics, my perspectives. This book, however, gives me doubts. And for that reason, you must read this book.

Big Machine is the story of Ricky Rice, a recovering heroin addict, who has been summoned to a mysterious place called the Washburn Library in Vermont. He, along with several other societal misfits nicknamed the Unlikely Scholars, is instructed to peruse archives of newspaper clippings, and to investigate a mysterious Voice that spoke more than 200 years ago to Judah Washburn, the library's founder.

Soon Ricky, joined by his cohort, Adele, is sent to California to seek and assassinate a former Scholar who has broken off from the organization to start a rogue group. As we follow these two on their mission, we learn that Ricky was raised in a religious cult that ultimately committed group suicide, and Adele is a former prostitute who narrowly escaped the machinations of a serial killer.

In LaValle's explorations of faith and skepticism, he suggests that we must believe in something, but he also insists that unquestioning faith is dangerous, too. For example, The Washerwomen, heads of the religion that Ricky's family follows, encourage the children to cultivate a healthy form of skepticism while ironically expecting their unquestioning commitment to the cult.

American writers have often struggled with questions of faith. In 1942, Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her autobiography, "you wouldn't think that a person who was born with God in the house would ever have any questions to ask on the subject. But as early as I can remember, I was questing and seeking." LaValle's novel encourages the same thoughtful probing.

As I was reading this book, I saw my daily experiences in a new light. I walk and ride public transportation every day, and I once watched as the contents of a woman's purse spilled onto the floor of the bus as she nodded, drool running from her mouth. I sat there motionlessly while those around me quietly returned her lipstick, bus card and wallet to her purse and placed it back in her lap. Then the passenger beside the sleeping woman nudged her and said, "You alright, sister?" I thought of LaValle's novel at that moment, and I promised myself that next time I would be the one to help.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of the book, Wench.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of the book, Wench. Gianni Neiveller hide caption

itoggle caption Gianni Neiveller

When a writer of LaValle's skills explores these fundamental questions about faith, we are forced as reader-citizens to examine our own beliefs. What do we believe and what do we doubt? Do we even know? At one point in the novel, a "bum" on a bus yells: "To be an American is to be a believer!" followed by, "But y'all don't even understand what you believe in."

What is literature if not something that inspires us to take a closer, deeper look at ourselves? If this is what great books do — urge us to be our more compassionate selves — then Big Machine should be on our list of must-read books.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.

Excerpt: 'Big Machine'

Big Machine
Big Machine
By Victor LaValle
Paperback, 400 pages
Spiegel and Grau
List Price: $15

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 you expect? Lurking in toilets was kind of my job.

Cleaning them I mean. I was a janitor at Union Station in Utica, New York. Specifically contracted through Trailways to keep their little ticket booth and nearby bathroom clean. I'd done the same job in other upstate towns, places so small the whole building could've fit inside Union Station's marbled hall. Coming to work here had been meant as a promotion after doing a little time in Kingston, Elmira, and Troy. But let me tell you this: a bathroom is a bathroom is a bathroom. And for all this "promotion" they hadn't actually increased my pay.

So when I got the envelope I went to the bathroom and shut the door. I couldn't lock it from the inside so I did the next best thing and pulled my cleaning cart in front to block the way. My boss was a woman, but that wouldn't be enough to stop her from coming into the men's room and checking on me.

But even with the cart in the way I didn't fully feel like I had my privacy so I went into the third stall, the last stall, so I could have my peace. Soon as I opened the door though, good god. The second stall would do just fine. I don't know what to say about the hygiene of the male species. I know we're human, or at least I believed we were human until I had to clean up after us. I mean I can understand how a person misses the hole when he's standing up to piss, but how does he miss the hole when sitting down? My goodness, my goodness. So, it was decided, stall number two.

The front of the envelope had my name, written by hand, and nothing else. No return address in the corner or on the back and no mailing address under my name. My boss just said the creamy yellow envelope had been sitting on her desk when she came in that morning. Propped against the green clay pen holder her son once made.

I held the envelope up to the fluorescent ceiling lights and saw two different shapes inside. One long and flat and the other something smaller. I tapped the envelope against my palm so the little things would drop to the bottom, then I tore the top half slowly, just in case I'd been wrong about the size of what sat inside.

Success! I blew into the open envelope and saw both pieces of paper sitting at the bottom, turned the envelope upside-down and dropped them both into my hand.

"Ricky Rice!"

I heard my name and then that damn woman, my boss, slapped at the bathroom door. Hit hard enough that the push broom fell right off my cleaning cart and clacked against the tile floor. You would've thought a grenade had gone off from the way I jumped. The little sheets of paper slipped from my palm and floated to that sticky toilet floor.

"Aw Cheryl!" I shouted.

"Don't give me that," she yelled back.

I walked out of the stall and went to my cleaning cart. Lifted the broom and pulled the cart aside. Didn't even have time to open the door for Cheryl, she just pushed at it any damn way. Then, I can't explain why I did this, but I flicked the ceiling lights off. Like a kid who thinks that will hide him.

I'm going to tell you something funny about my boss, Cheryl McGee. She could be sweet as baby's feet as long as she didn't think you were taking advantage. When I first moved to Utica she and her son even took me out for Chicken Riggies.

But now she stood at the bathroom door, trying to peek around me. A slim little redhead who grew her hair down to her waist and wore open toed sandals in all but the worst kinds of winter.

"Someone's in there?" she asked, looked up at the darkened lights.

"Me," I said.

She pointed her chin down, but her eyes up at me, a move meant to be intimidating. I bet she thought she looked like a mastermind, dominating with her glare, but I'd been shot at before, thrown down a flight of stairs, so it took a little more to frighten me.

"I mean is there anyone in there that I can't fire," she said.

Oop. Look at that. Big bad me suddenly became quite docile. It's hard to be defiant when you're depending on a living wage. I lifted the broom and shook it.

"I was just sweeping," I said.

Cheryl nodded and stepped back two paces.

"I don't mind breaks Ricky, you know that." She took out her cell phone and flipped it open, looked at the face. "But it's only 9:23."

"I'll be done in a minute," I said.

Cheryl nodded, reached back and swept her right hand through her long hair. The ends hung just below her belt. When it's that long the gesture doesn't look like flirtation, just hard work.

"Hey! What did that letter say?"

I looked back into the bathroom. "Don't know yet."

She nodded and squeezed her lips together like she felt I was lying and that this idea hurt her. "I'd love to know," she said and smiled weakly.

"Me too," I told her, not unkindly.

Then, of all things, she gave me a limp salute with her right hand. After that she turned in her puffy grey boots and walked toward the ticket booth. I shut the bathroom door, rolled the cart in place again.

The bathroom's windows were a row of small, rectangular frosted glass right near the ceiling. They let in light, but turned it green and murky. Now, as I crept back to the second toilet stall, it felt like I was walking underwater.

I opened the door to find the paper right where I'd dropped it. And I recognized it immediately. A bus ticket.

I bent at the knees, not at my waist, so my head wouldn't come too close to the rim of the toilet bowl. Braced one hand against the stall wall for balance and my right leg ached something awful. I even let out an old man's groan as I crouched, but that kind of ache was nothing new. I'd felt 40 ever since I was 15. Look at me: a black man who sounds like a country song.

I held the ticket at an angle so I could read it in the hazy light.

One way, from Union Station to Burlington, Vermont.

An 11 or 12 hour trip, no doubt, if you figured all the station stops between here and there. The date on the ticket read Thursday, the 21st, just three days off. This surprised me, of course. But so did the name of the company on the top. Greyhound. I worked for Trailways. It sounds silly, but the idea of using the ticket made me feel as I if was being disloyal. So much so that I leaned back, out of the stall, and peeked at the bathroom door.

But this was silly. Why feel that way at all when I wasn't even going to use it? I checked the back of the ticket for something, a note, an explanation. Nothing. Then I remembered that I'd seen two silhouettes through the envelope. Where was the second little sheet?

I ducked my head to the left, looking to the floor of the first stall, but it hadn't landed there. Then I looked to my right and found what I was looking for. A little cream-colored sheet, not much bigger than a Post-It, laying on the floor of filthy old stall number three.

Let me be more precise.

Laying on the floor, in a puddle, in filthy old stall number three.

Forget it. Leave it there. Make peace with a little mystery.

These are the things I told myself. Better to leave it behind than dip my fingers in the muck on that floor. Even wearing gloves didn't seem like enough protection. Maybe if I had a hazmat suit.

I stood and rubbed my bad knee, even turned to leave, but you know that old saying about curiosity: curiosity is a bastard.

So I went back. Yes I did. Opened the door of stall number three and tried not to look at the bowl itself. At all that had smeared or splashed along the seat and the back wall. I breathed through my mouth, but the faint whiff of filth, like a corrupted soul, still haunted me. It made my eyes tear up. It even seemed to make my ears ring. I looked like I'd been hit by nerve gas so I used the toe of my boot to tug the sheet of paper toward me.

But it wouldn't move. Using my shoe only tore it slightly. I had to use my hand.

Crouched, groaned, rubbed my bad right knee, you've know the routine. Then I lurched my middle finger forward, even as I pulled my head back, and touched the corner of the soaked little sheet. I flicked at it and flicked at it, but the damned thing barely shifted.

No choice but to get your hands in it.

So I just picked the paper up. The grey liquid it was in didn't even run down my fingers, it just clung, like jelly, to the tips. It was cold and gloopy. I had this fear that my fingertips were melting. The paper lay flat in my palm, so wet it clung to the skin. I had to peel it off with my left hand then hold it up to the greenish light.

"Ricky Rice!"

I thought that woman might just kick the door off the hinges this time.

"Aw, Cheryl!" I shouted.

"Enough of that! You get out here!"

And I would, but not yet. I stepped out of the stall and rose onto my toes, getting the soaked sheet as close to the windows as possible. I could see black ink on the paper. Make out the same handwriting that had scribbled my name on the outside of that envelope.

"I mean it Ricky."

Cheryl pushed and strained at the door and the wheels of my cleaning cart squeaked as they rolled. I blew on the paper as if I could dry it before she got in here. As if she was going to swipe this message away. Whatever it was, I didn't want to share it. The cursive was small, but neat, legible.

The wooden door swung open, I heard the steel handle clang against the stone wall.

I paid no more attention to Cheryl because now I could read the note:

We can give you what you lost in Cedar Rapids, 2002.

Excerpted from Big Machine by Victor LaValle. Copyright 2009 by Victor LaValle. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel and Grau, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

Big Machine
Big Machine

by Victor LaValle

Paperback, 370 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Big Machine
Author
Victor LaValle

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.