Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Fiction
Competition: US & Canada
Victor LaValle garnered plaudits from critics and readers alike with his very first collection of short stories, slapboxing with jesus, which was accepted for publication by Vintage Books/Knopf immediately after his graduation from Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program in 1998. Set in Queens, New York, the collection, which Publishers Weekly characterized in its starred review “as warm and funny as it is tough” and “an impressive, accomplished debut,” won a PEN/Open Book Award. In addition, he was given the Key to Southeastern Queens, an honor of which he is particularly proud since he was born and raised in that New York City borough.
The Ecstatic (Crown Books, 2002), his autobiographical first novel, had as its protagonist a morbidly obese paranoid schizophrenic obsessed with both horror movies and an imprisoned activist. It confirmed Mr. LaValle’s growing reputation as a truly gifted writer with a unique voice. Described by Cindy Widner in The Austin Chronicle (October 10, 2003) as full of “smart modernity, . . . heartbreakingly elegant phraseology, bone-dry humor, all-out absurdity in spite of itself,” The Ecstatic was named a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner and Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy awards in 2002.
Seven years later, Mr. LaValle brought out his second novel, Big Machine (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), the research for which was supported in part by a 2004 Whiting Writer’s Award. With a tip of the hat to H. P Lovecraft’s eerily threatening fictional town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University Library, Mr. LaValle’s characters Ricky and Adele are summoned by anonymous letter to the Washburn Library in Vermont, where they encounter its resident society of “black misfits and mystics” who are striving to make contact with the Voice, the God of America; the pair soon find themselves launched on a bizarre crusade to assassinate the leader of a West Coast splinter group lest he reach the Voice first. “The people I am interested in,” Mr. LaValle explained to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in an interview for the Wall Street Journal (24 July 2009), “are the ones on the edge of losing everything and falling into the last bit of despair. I’m trying to write about how people exist on that edge and how they can come back.”
Thomas Pynchon, Ralph Ellison, Junot Diaz, and Kevin Brockmeier were among the eminent authors to whom Victor LaValle was compared by reviewers of Big Machine. Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and The Nation included Big Machine in their lists of the best fiction of 2009, and book juries agreed: it won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novel in 2009 and the American Book Award and Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence in 2010.
Victor LaValle’s next work, The Devil in Silver: A Novel, is scheduled for release by Spiegel & Grau in April 2012.