Doubt, Faith, and Heroine: A Review of Victor LaValle’s “Big Machine”

Cover of "Big Machine: A Novel"

Books rarely take me one year to read.  This one, for whatever reason, did.  When I finished it in October, I could not remember what it was that first drew me to read it.  This all makes this book sound terrible.  It’s not the book, it’s me.

Usually when I put a book down, I pick it up again and finish it.  Since I borrowed it from the library, it kept coming due and, eventually, other books took its place on my reading shelf.  I’m glad I picked this book back up.

The story follows Ricky Rice, a guy with a janitor’s beat-down life and an addiction to heroine.  But he’s given a second chance in an unlikely way.  I know, sounds cliche.  He’s chosen to be an unlikely scholar at the Washburn Library in Vermont.  What do said luminaries look for?  Voices.  Yes, the unlikely scholars look for signs of a divine voice in newspapers and magazines.  Sounds kooky.  And I bring that up only because it is part of the premise, but it is not the larger story.

Yes, Ricky becomes a part of this rag-tag group of elites and dons suits instead of a janitor’s uniform, but it is his journey when he is placed on the field that I think makes this book worth reading.  He is given a second chance that he thinks stops at the living in the library and, perhaps more importantly, he thinks he knows what he needs to do in order to turn his life around.

His time in the field is by turns trippy, gritty, and heart-wrenching.  Through a series of vignettes that flop back and forth from Ricky’s memories of the past to the present time of the book, Ricky becomes three-dimensional.  He learns that his turn around may not be as simple as he thinks.  As a reader, I enjoyed seeing Ricky come to the realization that difficult and messy answers are not always a bad thing.  Through his transformation, the reader learns that doubt is the “big machine” as Ricky rethinks his faith and what it means to be a man.  I’m still on the fence about the time flip-flops.  They weren’t confusing, but traditional me likes to read a story in order.

Author photo of Victor LaValle

Another aspect of this book I liked was the writing.  Victor LaValle has a very keen eye for detail without bogging the reader down with needless fluff.  His writing is expansive where it needs to be, yet it always feels precise.

There is also mystery, action, and explosions in this novel.  For me, however, the most important aspects of the story were the writing and Ricky Rice’s emotional journey.  Ricky is joined by an ever-changing, colorful cast of characters, which definitely added a lot of different flavors to the book.  I would certainly recommend this book to anyone looking for a little action peppered with a lot of depth and attitude.  Because of this novel, I’m excited about reading LaValle’s other books.  I’m in the mood for short stories.  So I think “Slapboxing with Jesus” will have to be next on my LaValle reading list.

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One thought on “Doubt, Faith, and Heroine: A Review of Victor LaValle’s “Big Machine”

  1. Pingback: Explosions the Book: A Review of Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris’ “Phoenix Rising” | Roaring Out

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