Harold Stallworth left his Oriole cap in a Yellow Cab
It’s fitting that Victor LaValle hails from Queens, New York—the borough is a breeding ground for the Mobb Deeps and Kool G Raps of the world, writers twisted enough to frame a trip to Great Adventure as a harrowing tale of death and despair. There was always gloom to be found in LaValle’s writing, but it wasn’t always pronounced or imaginative. His literary debut, the short story anthology titled Slapboxing With Jesus, captured a raw depiction of young adulthood, though, it wasn’t nearly as bizarre or whimsical as the Ghostface Killah line from which it takes its name. His first novel, The Ecstatic, was so good that Mos Def named his most daring album after it, but it wasn’t a story that aimed to shoot chills down our spines. It wasn’t until 2010, with the release of Big Machine, that LaValle’s work took a defiant step toward the subversive.
Big Machine is bleak and hilarious, but rarely both at the same time. This makes the instances of bloodshed and degeneracy feel all the more intense, and the contrast is unsettling. As in every other LaValle novel, its protagonist, Ricky Rice, is a wry, underachieving New Yorker with a checkered past and a severely dysfunctional family. He was raised in a quasi-Christian cult founded and fostered by a trio of sisters with Koreshian ambitions. As a result, he’s also a recovered heroin addict, and perhaps an atheist. He’s haunted by the abortion of his first child, and even more so by the succession of miscarriages that follow. But despite his demons and personal disappointments, Ricky shows a keen, colorful sense of humor; his demeanor is remarkable for someone so thoroughly kicked around by life. As such, his character proves to be an ideal vessel for the varied and often incongruous tone of LaValle’s writing.
When the reader is introduced to Ricky Rice, he’s sober and gainfully employed, working as a custodian at a train station in Upstate New York. “Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms,” he says, resigned to his janitorial fate. “The most you’ll find is privacy and sticky floors.” Somewhere between scrubbing toilets and washing windows, he receives a letter—bearing no return address—that contains a one-way ticket to a small town in Vermont, and a Post-It note that reads, simply: “You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it.”
Just three days later, Ricky boards a Greyhound bus and never looks back. After an insufferable 13-hour ride to a quaint campus of log cabins centered around a large, elegant library, he learns that the invitation was not exclusive. In what becomes a Clue-like scenario, he encounters a ragtag bunch of con-artists, prostitutes, and junkies—none of whom have any idea why they’ve been summoned to the middle of nowhere, in the dead of winter no less. Soon after, a short, peculiar old man with a flair for doling out humiliation informs the group that they’ve been recruited to perform research for the library.
The old man, a patriarchal Dean of sorts, dubs them the Unlikely Scholars. In exchange for their services, they’re to be aided with the most basic of needs: food, clothing and shelter. The Dean affords each of the Unlikely Scholars with a stylish, if antiquated wardrobe, tenantship to their very own log cabin, and a modest stipend intended to cover their grocery needs and general living expenses. Naturally, the ragtag bunch is eager to oblige. To go from scrubbing toilets or some menial equivalent to wading through old newspapers and microfiche in the name of research is the ultimate in upward mobilization. And what exactly does this research entail? “There is a voice,” as the Dean puts it, “whispering in the darkness.”
The Unlikely Scholars are tasked with finding paranormal blips—Ricky’s quasi-Christian cult would’ve called them miracles—documented in the annals of American journalism; they also parse through field notes written by previous generations of Unlikely Scholars, dating as far back as the Reconstruction. The most efficient of the Unlikely Scholars, to be handpicked by the Dean, is to serve as a field detective, investigating the fruits of the group’s research in hopes of pinning down some mysterious, disembodied voice said to have all the answers. It’s precisely here where Big Machine takes that first defiant step toward the subversive, as LaValle strikes a balance between Steven Vail’s 1979 film Scavenger Hunt, and any number of David Lynch productions. “I have heard it,” the Dean continues, with an insistence that borders on lunacy. “Everything it says is true. It’s been talking to us, to all of us, but the world is so noisy we can’t make out the message.”
Predictably, after months of tireless research, Ricky is finally chosen to set forth into the world. Garland, to be specific—a slow, presumably fictional suburb of San Francisco and the purported location of a former, disgruntled Unlikely Scholar whom the Dean would quite literally prefer dead. Before long, Ricky finds himself embroiled in an explosive game of cat-and-mouse, and as the story unfolds, it becomes more and more difficult to tell who sits on which tier of the food chain.