Friday, April 15, 2005

A little more about the stars

I know this is decidedly after the fact, but as I'm starting up this blog thing I'm inclined to make up for some lost time. So herewith the pre-publication reviews Gabriel's Story received. These are the reviews mostly for the industry, for bookstores and libraries, and the type of things critics might take a look at when they're deciding to review a work for a mainstream audience. These were rather good. Actually, three of them were "Starred", which is supposed to indicate titles of particular note. Here's how they went...

Publishers Weekly

STARRED REVIEW - The old West, both beautiful and brutal, is the setting of Durham's magnificently realized debut novel, a classic coming-of-age story of an African-American boy. Shortly after the Civil War, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his mother and younger brother head out from Baltimore to meet Gabriel's new stepfather in Kansas, where the family hopes to make a fresh start as farmers. But Gabriel finds homesteading to be backbreaking and depressing and is soon lured away by cruel, charismatic Marshall Hogg, who's leading a group of cowboys down into Texas. It seems a dream come true for Gabriel, but then the nightmare begins. While bloated with whiskey, Marshall accidentally murders a man, precipitating a flight from the law that degenerates into a grotesque spree of burglary, rape, kidnapping and murder. Gabriel desperately wants to escape, but is prevented by Marshall's threats and the menacing presence of Caleb, a mute and shadowy figure. When Gabriel finally manages to free himself, the evil that he unwillingly witnessed follows him back homeAand threatens the people he loves most. Durham is a born storyteller: each step of Gabriel's descent into hell proceeds from the natural logic of the narrative itself, which manages to be inevitable even as it's totally surprising. Equally impressive is Durham's gift for describing the awful beauty of the American West: "The April sky was not a thing of air and gas," writes Durham. "Rather it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie." The tale's racial dimension is subtly and intelligently developed, and though some readers may be turned off by the violence Gabriel witnesses, all will be impressed by Durham's maturity, skill and lovingly crafted prose. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Jan. 16) Forecast: Durham's view of 1800s history through the eyes of a hopeful African-American boy adds a new dimension to the perennially appealing theme of the lure of the West. Doubleday seems ready to get behind this novel with focused promotion, including an author tour; readers may take notice.

Booklist

STARRED REVIEW - In 1871, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his younger brother, Ben, and their mother, Eliza, arrive in Crownsville, Kansas. Gabriel is angry with his lot in life, particularly with his mother, who has taken him from his home in the East and his dream of becoming a doctor to a homestead on the plains and a stepfather, Solomon, whom he has barely met. Soon Gabriel befriends another dissatisfied youth, James, and the two innocent African American boys run away from their troubles in search of adventure with a band of cowboys. The road they've chosen becomes a perilous one, taking them across the American West with men prone to violence and pursued by their own demons. On this journey from home and back, one could conclude that Gabriel discovers what he values, but one also sees the enactment of that old saying about the grass being greener on the other side. And the surfeit of symbolism (for example, picture Eliza crossing troubled waters) will have critics salivating. Nevertheless, the circular movement of the plot is devastatingly powerful, particularly the embedded coming-of-age story involving the leader of the cowboys, Marshall Hogg, and his chief companion, the black Caleb. First-time novelist Durham acknowledges the influence of Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy, and Durham's novel does recall McCarthy's work in its juxtaposition of the pristine beauty and spaciousness of the land with the raw violence of the men come to carve a civilization out of it. Yet, perhaps because of the African American family and the skillful manipulation of myths, Durham posits a slant on the settlement of the West that speaks to the essential multicultural character of the nation. Durham is a storyteller touched by an angel.

Kirkus Reviews


STARRED REVIEW - Intensely dramatic debut, set in Kansas and points west and southwest during the 1870s: a direct homage to Cormac McCarthy's highly praised fiction (both his Blood Meridian and the recent Border Trilogy) but also an original work of high distinction. The protagonist, teenaged Gabriel Lynch, arrives from the East with his widowed mother Eliza and younger brother Ben at a train station where they're met by her husband-to-be, Solomon Johns, a farmer who had been Eliza's first love before her life with the boys' father, a prosperous middle-class Baltimore mortician. Gabriel resents the opportunities lost, and the hard life they're introduced to, and eagerly leaves "home," joining another black boy (James) to ride with a group of cattle drovers. A bloodthirsty odyssey ensues, as the gang's embittered leader Marshall Hogg (an amoral fatalist straight out of Dostoevsky) directs his minions to steal, rape, and murder, ever moving on, through Mexico, Arizona, and the Rockies, en route to California - away from the avengers who slowly, methodically pursue them. Durham tells this story with great skill, weaving together a beautifully plotted central action and extended italicized passages detailing the embattled growth to manhood of the stoical Ben and the steely determination of a bereaved Mexican soldier who'll follow Hogg to hell and back. Meanwhile, he also depicts with hallucinatory vividness the enigmatic figure of Hogg's second-in-command Caleb, a black drover who never speaks, and harbors a terrible secret indeed. The only flaw in the narrative is Durham's inexplicable tendency toward an abstract rhetoric clearly influenced by both the aforementioned McCarthy and his major influence, Faulkner, which often produces moments of ludicrous and vague grandiosity (e.g., watching Caleb," Gabriel thought him some dark figure of the apocalypse"). Such moments aside, Gabriel's Story grates on the reader's nerves unerringly, and frequently rises to real grandeur. A brilliant example of how to assimilate and transmute powerful literary influence. And what a movie this dark, haunting tale will make.

Library Journal


A Wild West debut: forced by his mother's remarriage to move from New York City to a sod house in Kansas, Gabriel decides to run away and become a cowboy.

Uh, well, that's all Library Journal had to say. No star there, although looking at that review I'm inclined to say it wasn't really a review. They "mentioned" the book, but didn't choose to assign it. No matter, they were very kind to Walk Through Darkness a year. They gave that one a star. And then they gave Pride of Carthage a star too, as did Publisher's Weekly and Booklist. Kirkus didn't, but they still wrote a helluva review. So all told, for three novels since 2001, I've received seven starred reviews. I think that's more than all but a few writers, and I don't think any African-American writers have received more stars in this time period. I'm proud of that. Didn't exactly lead to massive sales, but I'm working on that...

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