Man, A Latrine, A Bus Station And A Promise

These are the opening elements of Victor Lavalle's new novel, Big Machine. The protagonist has a problem, but what's a man got to worry about if he's mopping floors for Trailways in Utica, New York? Guest host Jacki Lyden talks to LaValle, who some say writes like Thomas Pynchon, others like Ralph Ellison.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A man, a public toilet, a bus station, and a promise. These are the opening elements of Victor Lavalle's new novel, "Big Machine." Some people say that Lavalle writes like Thomas Pynchon, others like Ralph Ellison. We can come back to that later. But for the moment, the protagonist of "Big Machine" has a problem.

Victor Lavalle, what would that problem be?

Mr. VICTOR LAVALLE (Author, "Big Machine"): He has a number of problems. One of them is that he's working as a janitor at a bus station in Utica, New York and doing his best to get off heroin.

LYDEN: Tell us a little bit more about your protagonist Ricky Rice. He's got a lot going on. You mentioned his heroin addiction, which isn't very far in his past. He's also survivor of a death cult and now part of a paranormal investigation squad.

Mr. LAVALLE: Yes. So as you can guess, average everyday guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAVALLE: But he's left a lot of horrific things in his past. And when we meet him at the beginning of the novel working at this bus station, it's not that this is where he really wants to be, but this is where he can end up and he thinks hide from the world, and hide from all the things he's done to people and that people have done to him.

LYDEN: So he's mopping floors and he gets a mysterious note.

Mr. LAVALLE: Yes, that makes mention of a promise he made three years earlier in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And as soon as he gets that note he realizes all the things he's been trying to hide from he can't hide from.

LYDEN: Can we talk about what Ricky Rice has promised?

Mr. LAVALLE: Ricky Rice has promised to be brave. And the reason that matters so much to him is because the secrets that he has in his past are about the ways he's failed people he loved very dearly; both when he was a child and in his 20s when he was with a woman that he loved and they were going to have a child. And in each case he fell short of what he thought he should've done for them. And he promised he would do better the next time. But secretly he was kind of hoping he would never be asked.

LYDEN: So would you read a little bit from your book, "Big Machine," for us, please?

Mr. LAVALLE: Of course.

But where was I going? Burlington, Vermont? What kind of black man accepts an unsigned invitation to the whitest state there is? There'd been that sting on television, where police told deadbeat dads they'd won the lottery and arrested the guys when they showed up to collect. Maybe that's what this ticket was about. I wasn't a father to anyone, but I'd sure made some bad plays in my life. I wondered if I had any open warrants floating around. Or could something good be waiting for me there?

LYDEN: I want to say that this novel is very, very funny, very darkly comic. Yet we have to get him to Vermont and talk about the Washburn Library, which sounds sort of like the arts colony from hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAVALLE: Yes, it's very funny. People have been trying to guess what I based the Washburn Library, which is the place where Ricky goes when he gets this mysterious note and this bus ticket. And when he gets there, he discovers it's this secret society of, as is intimated there, black people living in Northeastern Vermont, which is of course where black people always go to start secret societies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAVALLE: And when he gets there he discovers that what he thinks is the end of the mystery is actually only the beginning of a deeper and deeper mystery.

LYDEN: I just want to say book blurbs are one thing but you've got a lot of love notes on the back of this one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAVALLE: Yes. It's true.

LYDEN: Mos Def, Amy Bloom, people call you a sort of literary mash-up artist. And you yourself say that your obsessions are horror, religion and mental illness.

Mr. LAVALLE: I would say that number one, all the blurbs on the back and the reviews that have come through too, by and large, have been amazingly positive and amazingly loving, as you said. And I think that sometimes what gets people excited is when they see things on the page that they didn't expect to see on the page.

What I hope is they're excited by this whole secret society idea and Ricky Rice being hopefully a funny and charming narrator. But then maybe the surprise also comes in when there are serious concerns about things like faith and religion and patriotism - also mashed in their together - and the surprise makes people feel more excited about the book.

LYDEN: It's a great surprise. I won't give it away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: But I want us to go to something a little more personal, if I might. I gathered that this rather wonderfully fractive way that you write and free associate has a little traction from an experience in your own life.

Mr. LAVALLE: Yes, I would say that the kernel of the book - when I began writing the book a couple years back I'd been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler. And the first thing I wanted to write was this West Coast/East Coast detective novel where Ricky, it was always Ricky and it was always this secret society. But this other element that kept coming into the book no matter how many times I revised it was this question of parentage and having children.

And finally at a certain point I had to admit that the kernel of the book - the heart of the book - was really an ex-girlfriend and I having had a relationship, that relationship going badly and ending. But even after it ended, finding out that she was pregnant and facing the decision of what to do about that pregnancy when the two of us were, to say the least, not close.

So together we made the choice to have an abortion, and I was a little surprised or a lot surprised that as time went by even after we'd split up, the choice to do that stayed with me month after month, year after year. It remained a concern of mine, a question I continued to have. Did we do the right thing? Did I make this choice out of fear or out of courage? Why did I do the things I'd done? I really wanted to write about that and I felt like, frankly, by and large I don't really see very many books by men where they try to tackle the question of parentage, abortion, choice.

In a way that isn't about telling the woman what to do with her body but is instead about a man thinking about what he's done and what choices he's made.

LYDEN: Yours is such an original voice. I just have to ask - Ricky Rice, Richard Wright, "Black Boy," "Native Son," or am I wrong?

Mr. LAVALLE: I wish that I had thought that far ahead. Sadly, I just thought like Ricky Rice sounded like the kind of name of a guy who had a little swagger, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAVALLE: That's what I like.

LYDEN: He also says I don't have much faith in institutions but I still believe in people and I really heard a lot of humanity in that.

Mr. LAVALLE: I'm very happy you felt that way. The other thing that was a little bit of a leap for me from my previous two books was I actually wanted to write a book that was full of qualified optimism. And I felt frankly like a lot of times with literary-ish fiction, every one thinks like, well, it's not literary fiction if everyone is not dead at the end or something, and feeling like I wanted to write one where you could say, no, at the end actually people are a little bit beaten, a little bit bruised, but they're hopeful and have that be a stand in not only for the reader but for, you know, frankly for the whole country maybe.

LYDEN: And you pulled in so much of America here - Polk County, Wisconsin; Utica, New York; Troy, New York; Cedar Rapids; Oakland. It's a road book but it's not, it's a mystery but it's not. What do you call it?

Mr. LAVALLE: I called it the wildest book you're going to read this year. That's what I'm going to call it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: And I'm not going to gainsay that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Victor Lavalle, he's the author of "Big Machine." It's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

Mr. LAVALLE: Oh, thanks for having me.

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