First Page Appraisal: Big Machine by Victor LaValle


Judging books by their covers is a no-no, but we do think it’s sometimes OK, in the interest of efficiency, to judge them by their first pages. Today we’re reading the first page of Big Machine by Victor LaValle, a novel that’s got reviewers throwing around comparisons to Thomas Pynchon, Ralph Ellison and Junot Diaz. Does the first page live up to the hype? Check it out, along with our verdict, after the jump.

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 I say? Lurking in toilets was my job. 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 their whole bus stations could’ve fit inside Union Station’s marbled hall. A year in Kingston, six months in Elmira. Then Troy. Quit one and find the next. Sometimes I told them I was leaving, other times I just disappeared. 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 of the door to block the way. My boss was a woman, but if the floors in front of the Trailways booth weren’t shining she’d launch into the men’s room with a fury. She had hopes for a promotion. But even with the cart in the way I felt exposed. I went into the third stall, the last stall, so I could have my peace. Soon as I opened the door, though, I shut it again. Good God. Me and my eyes agreed that the second stall would be better. I don’t know what to say about the hygiene of the male species. I can understand how a person misses the hole when he’s standing, but how does he miss the hole while sitting down? My goodness, my goodness. So, it was decided, I entered stall number two.

Our reaction: We begin in a train station bathroom in Utica, NY. Beginning in a bathroom isn’t exactly a cliche, but there’s something that feels familiar about it, like we already know this character, a nomad and sometimes-janitor, down on his luck, living an episodic sort of life. He’s done some hard living and as a result, can share certain universal truths about or gleaned from bathrooms. He’s interesting, but we’re not sure if we want to commit to him yet.

The verdict: The comparisons to Ellison are dead-on, and the first page neither proves or disproves that LaValle is a wannabe. It’s too soon to tell. The character feels very Ellisonian, but we’re also in the present time and already have a mystery to content with: the envelope. All of this bodes well. If we were big Ellison fans, we’d definitely keep reading, but as it happens, we’re neutral. So we’ll give this book a couple more chapters to get out of the bathroom and prove itself to us.