Big Machine

Big Machine

by Victor LaValle

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Ricky Rice is a middling hustler with a lingering junk habit, a bum knee, and a haunted mind. A survivor of a suicide cult, he scrapes by as a porter at a bus depot in Utica, New York, until one day a mysterious letter arrives, summoning him to enlist in a band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God.

Infused with the wonder of a disquieting dream and laced with Victor LaValle’s fiendish comic sensibility, Big Machine is a mind-rattling mystery about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385530415
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/11/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 994,837
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Victor LaValle is the author of the short-story collection Slapboxing with Jesus and the novel The Ecstatic, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

The front of the envelope had my name, written by hand, and nothing else. No return address in the corner or on the back, and no mailing address. My boss just said the creamy yellow envelope had been sitting on her desk when she came in that morning. Propped against the green clay pen holder her son made in art class.

I held the envelope up to the fluorescent ceiling lights and saw two different papers inside. One a long rectangle and the other a small square. I tapped the envelope against my palm, then tore the top half slowly. I blew into the open envelope, turned it upside down, and dropped both pieces of paper into my hand.

“Ricky Rice!”

I heard my name and a slap against the bathroom door. Hit hard enough that the push broom fell right off my cleaning cart and clacked against the tile floor. You would’ve thought a grenade had gone off from the way I jumped. The little sheets of paper slipped from my palm and floated to that sticky toilet floor.

“Aw, Cheryl!” I shouted.

“Don’t give me that,” she yelled back.

I walked out the stall to my cleaning cart. Lifted the broom and pulled the cart aside. Didn’t even have time to open the door for Cheryl, she just pushed at it any damn way. I flicked the ceiling lights off, like a kid who thinks the darkness will hide him.

I’m going to tell you something nice about my boss, Cheryl McGee. She could be sweet as baby’s feet as long as she didn’t think you were taking advantage. When I first moved to Utica, she and her son even took me out for Chicken Riggies. It was a date, but I pretended I didn’t know. The stink of failure had followed my relationships for years, and I preferred keeping this job to trying for love again.

Now she stood at the bathroom door, trying to peek around me. A slim little redhead who’d grown her hair down to her waist and wore open-toed sandals in all but the worst of winter.

“Someone’s in there?” she asked, looked up at the darkened lights.

“Me,” I said.

She pointed her chin down, but her eyes up at me. She thought she looked like a mastermind, dominating with her glare, but I’d been shot at before. Once, I was thrown down a flight of stairs.

“I mean, is there anyone in there that I can’t fire?”

Oop. I lifted the broom and shook it.

“I was just sweeping,” I said.

Cheryl nodded and stepped back two paces.

“I don’t mind breaks, Ricky, you know that.” She took out her cell phone and flipped it open, looked at the face. “But I need this station looking crisp first thing in the morning.”

“I’ll be done in a minute,” I said.

Cheryl nodded, reached back, and swept her hand through her waist-length hair. The gesture didn’t look like flirtation, just hard work.

“Hey! What did that letter say?”

I looked back into the bathroom. “Don’t know yet.”

She nodded and squeezed her lips together. “Well, I’d love to know,” she said, and smiled weakly.

“Me too,” I told her, not unkindly.

Then, of all things, she gave me a limp salute with her right hand. After that she turned in her puffy gray boots and walked toward the ticket booth.

The bathroom’s windows were a row of small frosted glass rectangles right near the ceiling. They let in light, but turned it green and murky. Now, as I crept back to the second toilet stall, I imagined I was walking underwater, and felt queasy. I opened the door to find the first piece of paper right where I’d dropped it. And I recognized it immediately.

A bus ticket.

I bent at the knees and braced one hand against the stall wall for balance. My right leg ached something awful. I even let out an old man’s groan as I crouched, but that kind of ache was nothing new. I’d felt forty ever since I was fifteen.

I held the ticket at an angle so I could read it in the hazy light.

One way, from Union Station to Burlington, Vermont.

An eleven- or twelve-hour trip if you figured all the station stops between here and there. The date on the ticket read Thursday, the twenty-first of January, just three days off. The name of the company on the top was Greyhound. I worked for Trailways. It sounds silly, but the logo made the ticket feel like contraband. I leaned back, out of the stall, and peeked at the bathroom door to make sure I was still alone.

I checked the back of the ticket for something, a note, an explanation. Nothing. Then I remembered that I’d seen two silhouettes through the envelope.

I ducked my head to the left, looking to the floor of the sanitary first stall, but it hadn’t landed there. Then I looked to my right and saw that little cream-colored sheet, not much bigger than a Post-it, flat on the floor of filthy old stall number three.

Let me be more precise.

Flat on the floor, in a gray puddle, in filthy old stall number three.

Forget it.

Better to leave it behind than dip fingers in the muck on that floor. Even wearing gloves didn’t seem like enough protection. Maybe a hazmat suit.

Leave it there. Make peace with a little mystery.

I stood and rubbed my bad knee, even turned to leave, but you know that old saying about curiosity: curiosity is a bastard.

I opened the door of stall number three and tried not to look at the bowl itself, or at all that had smeared and splashed along the seat and the back wall. I opened my mouth to breathe, but the faint whiff of filth, like a corrupted soul, haunted me. It made my eyes tear up. Even my ears seemed to ring. I bet I looked like a nerve gas victim.

So I used the toe of my boot to tug the sheet of paper toward me, but it wouldn’t move. I had to use my hand.

I lurched my middle finger forward, even as I pulled my head back, and touched the corner of the soaked little sheet. I flicked at it and flicked at it, but the damned thing barely shifted. I had no choice.

I picked the paper up, right out of the muck. The gray liquid didn’t even run down my fingers, it just clung, like jelly, to the tips. It was cold and lumpy. My skin went numb. The wet paper lay flat in my palm; I peeled it off with my left hand, then held it to the greenish light of the windows.

“Ricky Rice!”

“Aw, Cheryl!” I shouted.

“Enough of that! You get out here!”

I would, but not yet. I stepped out of the stall and rose onto my toes, getting the soaked sheet as close to the windows as possible. I could see black ink on the paper. Make out the same handwriting that had scribbled my name on the outside of that envelope.

“I mean it, Ricky.”

Cheryl pushed and strained at the door, and the wheels of my cleaning cart squeaked as they rolled. I blew on the paper to dry it. The cursive was small, but neat, legible.

The wooden door swung open. I heard its steel handle clang against the stone wall.

I paid no more attention to Cheryl because now I could read the two lines of the note:

You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002.

Time to honor it.

Without thinking, purely automatic, I walked back into that filthy toilet stall and flushed the note away.

But not the ticket.

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Big Machine 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 51 reviews.
leftyguitarman More than 1 year ago
I had a lot of difficulty reading this book. What the hell is it about? I've read thousands and thousands of books and only given up on few. I almost gave up on this one. I'm still not sure why I finished it. It was not an inspiring read by any means.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What an excellent book. Gritty, combination of mystery, supernatural, and part detective novel, Big Machine had me flipping pages in suspense, while also laughing hysterically at some points. Big Machine kind of reminds me of a Walter Mosley Easy Rawlings tale, just set in more current times. I am bookmarking this author as a must-read!
GingerbreadMan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ricky Rice is just over forty and has a room of his own and a steady job as a bus toilet janitor. It¿s not much of a life, but as an ex-heroinist and ex-con with a crappy leg it¿s perhaps all he can hope for. Until he receives a letter, containing a bus ticket to Vermont and a note saying: ¿You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it¿. And after just a little hesitation, Ricky drops everything and goes. And steps into the world of the Washburn library, a huge hidden estate in the forest, where a group of dropouts, drunks and ex-junkies are trying to reconnect with an almost 200 years old prophecy. A work which is now being threatened from within.Any book that comes with a strong recommendation from Claire and/or Pete raises my interest, as I tend to like their taste for the slightly odd, distorted and peculiar. And there is really a lot to like in this engrossing and original book. If you like Gaiman¿s urban fantasy, but can stand a little bit more strangeness, this could well be for you. Me, I loved the image of a secret society with big, but clearly limited resources ¿ how you travel to your important mission on a Greyhound bus with a second hand, ancient laptop and a handful of phone cards in your bag. And the chapters about Ricky¿s upbringing in the Washerwomen cult, formed by three sisters who¿ve escaped murder charges in the south and rewritten the Bible to be set in the US, are the best in the whole book, creating a nailbiting tension. LaValle also handles a storytelling device that¿s often annoying to me as a reader ¿ a main character who withholds information from the reader, and gives it out on a need-to-know basis ¿ pretty well.But I find myself strangely unable to relate to Ricky and Adele, the leading characters. It¿s like I get to know both too much and too little about them at once, and neither of them really comes alive to me. The same goes for the world. I actually like the puzzling and unexplained, but once you have been starting explaining and creating logic, like LaValle does here, any gaps become that more evident for it. Which means that the book in a way is too clear to pull off being mysterious, in a way. Threads left hanging or just being half-assedly explained don¿t come across as enigmatic, but instead as weaknessess. To this particular reader, at this particular time, there are a few too many of them.So, I end up liking this book, even though I wanted to, and suspect I could have, loved it. But it¿s really an original, quick and fresh read, and I¿m happy to look out for more books by LaValle.
Voise15 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Readable, enjoyable! The American novel of redemption and second chances, and defining our truth in a world of beliefs. GK Chesterton-like.
superfastreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Synopsis:A brokedown junkie, ex-cultist and mass murder survivor gets a mysterious invitation to become an Unlikely Scholar investigating odd phenomena across America.Review:Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Big Machine rocked my world. Stylistically, it¿s a mash-up of Haruki Murakami and Stephen King, with a bit of Ralph Ellison for good measure.When junkie Ricky Rice becomes an Unlikely Scholar under way mysterious circumstances, he finds himself scouring newspapers for stories that give evidence to The Voice. His journey grows ever more wild, and as he travels across the country from Vermont to northern California on the trail of the Voice and something more human and more ominous, he reflects back on the journey that got him to this point. His childhood in a cult, his years as a junkie and petty criminal, and his efforts to stay on the straight and narrow become more than just a life story. It¿s a Pilgrim¿s Progress founded on doubt¿but a doubt that might be stronger than the faith of some.LaValle has a lot to say about American fanaticism of all stripes. The social commentary here is fascinating, specific, and outrageously funny. Ricky Rice will become one of my favorite characters for the unique voice LaValle gives him, at once guileless and sneaky, wise and foolish, a street smart risk taker who has survived way too much.The story is wild beyond imagining, with horror elements that don¿t hold back. LaValle is not genre-slumming here. He genuinely wants to freak us out.I was fortunate enough to hear LaValle read a large chunk of the opening of this book, and I was hooked. Definitely planning to read more of his work.
piankeshaw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a novel that is difficult to categorize. Not that that is a bad thing. The main character is likable and just flows with the action. A wild mix of mysticism and the paranormal, blended with stark reality and the wilds of northern Vermont. I had just finished "Wind-up Bird Chronicles" when I started this and found many parallels.
clfisha on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I don't think I have read many books like this, I certainly haven't read enough. Mixing mysticism with harsh reality and a heavy dose of redemption, this is a funny, dark, honest and beautiful book and an ambitious one.Really that's all need you know.oh well if you must..all I am saying about the plot is this: It starts with Ricky, a mysterious invitation and the utterly cool line "Don't look for dignity in public bathrooms" and then a master class in mystery writing unfolds.I knew next to nothing about the plot and I found it fascinating, memorable and truly odd. From the beginning you are kept on your toes and in dark yet I never once felt frustrated, Lavalles timing is just too perfect. The characters are vivid, interesting, deeply flawed and always terribly human (even the peripheral characters seem to shine) and whilst there are so many obvious monsters the book rarely takes the easy black and white way out serving to make events even more startling.Ok it's not a manic whirlwind of a thriller but it's a steady, fair paced tale which hooks you in and is terribly hard to stop thinking about. I highly recommend this book to err.. to well everyone: the deft blending of so many genres, the darkness and ugliness is elevated by the light, everyday reality is spiced with the bizarre, faith and passion mixed with doubt. To be honest what's not to like?
Girl_Detective on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ricky Ray is a bus-station janitor in upstate New York when he receives an envelope that moves his life in a new direction. He's been a junkie, a thief, even part of a cult, but none of these have prepared him for the strangeness he's about to encounter when he's invited to a place called The Washburn Library. The details of this book are so lovely and strange I don't want to spoil them. This is a surprising book that includes elements of horror, spirituality, mystery, even a kind of coming-of-age. The central characters are all black, and the story's blend of mystical realism reminded me, in a good way, of Colson Whitehead's 'The Intuitionist'. It is by turns funny, tragic, horrifying, and wondrous. Throughout, though, it made me want to turn its pages. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it, or wanting to get back to reading it.
andafiro on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
(Adding this to my library now though I read it some time ago--this title just now showed up as a recommendation and I want to confirm that yes, it's a good recommendation. ;-)
slickdpdx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Algorithm: If you like Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Russell Greenan, Wm. Vollmann and Colson Whitehead, you will like Big Machine.
libsue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
" Don't look for dignity i public bathrooms. The most you'll find is privacy and sticky floors" That's Ricky Rice a 40 year old heroin addict. He's currently working in Utica as a cleaner in the bus station. One day an envelope arrives for him-it contains a bus ticket to Burlington, Vermont and a cryptic note that says"You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 202. Time to honor it." He's not sure why he's been called. He's not sure he'll go, but he ends up on that bus during a snow storm. He finds himself on a journey both physical and spiritual. Big Machine is a great book about faith, and what it means to be human in an inhumane time. This is a book that will grab you and not let you go. It's a wild ride at times, and you'll also have to have faith in LaValle because he does take you places that you'd never expect, but pick it up and fall in love with some wonderful writing.
RachelWeaver on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
To preface this review, I'll just say that I'm not good with the supernatural. I don't read fantasy, sci-fi or horror novels. Generally speaking, they either bore me, annoy me, and or at worst, insult my intelligence. Also, I'm an atheist. However, the fact that I still wanted to pick up this book after reading the description, and the fact that I still gave this book 5 stars after finishing it says a lot in my book. LaValle is doing a lot of different things here, from urban realism to allegory, from philosophical novel to mystical fantasy, and I would say that LaValle is about 95% successful. And those parts he's successful at?--he's 200% successful. I've mostly broken my college habit of marking up my books, but it was very hard to resist the urge with this one. There's so much to chew on, to look back on, to ponder for a very long time to come. If I were a college English professor, I would go out of my way to build a course around this book. I particularly love the way the book looks at faith and doubt, not as opposites, but as a system of checks and balances to keep religious fanaticism at bay.
eenerd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A recommendation for those in weird fiction! A group of ex-criminals on the path to rehabilitation are sent to the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont and become paranormal investigators for what is termed the Washburn Library. Ricky Rice, the Dean, the Grey Lady, the Unlikely Scholars and a host of other characters share their stories and journeys, highs and lows. A truly strange book, I still am not sure what to even think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. The lens through which narrator views the mad world of the story is quite unique. Bold writing that doesn't pull punches or shy away from difficult subjects. Big ideas delivered with subtlety and a graceful style. A little crazy -- which I like. We need more deliberate, intelligent glimpses at what's called crazy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Waste of time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i'm an avid reader. 2-3 books a month in all genre's and it's been 3 weeks i've been trying to read this book. i like the writing style of this author but i have no damn clue what this book is about and i'm 70 pages from the end :-/ i dont even want to finish but i'm no quitter!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The "Big Machine" is a powerful book. There are parts that still come to mind and I have to stop and think about it a little bit more. I have no idea how to describe this book other than biblical. It would interesting to see what others think about this description. There were times that I got so lost I couldn't unravel where I was unless I thought about biblical stories. This is a very entertaining book. I love Vistor's writing style. He is a natural born writer. You can tell by his writing that he sees life as a series of stories. I imagine he is a very interesting person to spend time with. If you decide to read this book and I think you should. Please don't put the book in a catagory until you are finished. There are parts still make me think it's a mystery. There are other parts that want me to put it in just a general fiction catagory. But that would be too confining. You need to see for yourself where you would place this book.
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This book had so many surprises it kept me entertained the entire time. You would never have thought by reading the beginning of it how it would end or that it was even science fiction. Highly recommend this book.
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