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A Mean Ghost Story And A Souped-Up Crime Novel Will Wise You Up Fast


Let's cut to the chase: I have two novels to recommend. They have nothing in common apart from the fact that, at first glance, they're easy to underestimate.

The Aunt Who Wouldn't Die is a short 1993 novel by the Benagali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. Dubbed a modern Bengali classic, it's just been published for the first time in the United States.

The novel's flip title was a draw; its plot summary wasn't. A heartwarming multi-generational tale of three Bengali women sounded to me like a variant on a lot of mass-market women's fiction. But there's nothing canned about this story, which has the allure of a feminist fractured fairy tale.

The central character here, Somlata, is an 18-year-old woman from a poor family newly married to a handsome, "blissfully unemployed" older man from a once wealthy clan. Soon after the wedding, Somlata's mother-in-law tells her it's her job to reverse the family's fortunes by "pestering" her husband to work.

Easier said than done.

Stuck inside the crumbling family compound, Somlata decides one afternoon to climb to the roof for air. To do so, she has to pass the open door of the apartment of her great aunt-in-law, a bitter dragon who was married at 7 and widowed at 12. Tiptoe-ing past, she peers in and realizes that Aunt Pishima — who's, as usual, sitting, glaring in her chair — is stone cold dead.

That's when the eerie ruckus begins. Pishima is a mean and jealous ghost, popping up to urge frightened Somlata to put more salt into the meal she's preparing (thus rendering it inedible) or to indulge in an affair. At night, Somlata awakens to the voice of Pishima wandering around her room, muttering, "Die, die, die, become a widow, may you have leprosy."

What makes this little novel so memorable is the generous and expansive way that Somlata meets this malevolence. As the mindfulness coaches are always advising, Somlata responds rather than reacts; instead of remaining a pushover, she pushes back, without malice, against the ghost, as well as against the constraints of her life. This is a story that, like Aunt Pishima, lingers.

/ Macmillan

Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby, opens on a scene familiar to lovers of hardboiled crime stories: heavy on cars and gambling. It's a nighttime drag race on an isolated road, this one in rural Virginia. Our hardluck hero is named Beauregard "Bug" Montage: He's a married African American father of three who's been "in the life," but that's behind him.

These days, Bug is struggling to make the rent on his failing auto repair shop. His estranged daughter needs college tuition; his sons need braces and glasses; and his cranky mother is being kicked out of her nursing home because her Medicaid benefits are being revoked.

So Bug — once a crack getaway driver — settles in behind the wheel of his father's old Duster to win that desperately needed prize money. It's only a small exaggeration to say that I felt like I read the rest of this marvel of a souped-up crime novel with the same intensity and speed that Bug drives that muscle car.

Fate is always a major invisible player in stories like this and Cosby does an exquisite job of slowly hemming Bug in by bad breaks. A not-so-invisible player here is racism, which fuels Bug's determination to give his kids a better chance.

Cosby has garnered attention for his short stories, but this is his first novel with a major publisher and he's a great new noir voice in the Gary Phillips/George Pelecanos mode. Like those writers, Cosby gives readers a panoramic vision of a fallen America; for instance, rural Virginia's empty industrial parks, steadily being reclaimed by honeysuckle and kudzu.

But Cosby is also a master of the small moment. Here's a scene, subtle and tense, where Bug visits the nursing home to try to talk the director into letting his mother stay:

 He knocked on Mrs. Talbot's door ...

"Please come in," Mrs. Talbot said. Beauregard did as he was told. The slim and neat woman sat at a glass-top desk. ... She stood and extended her hand.

"Mr. Montage."

Beauregard gripped her hand lightly and shook it.

"Mrs. Talbot."

She gestured toward the chair and Beauregard sat down. It struck him how many times his life had been changed by sitting across from someone at a desk.

Like The Aunt Who Wouldn't Die, Blacktop Wasteland could initially be mistaken for the same old, same old, but, it's the kind of novel that wises a reader up, fast.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.