THE RIB KING
Amistad (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now
Rating: 4* of five...truly on sentimental grounds
A BOOKRIOT BEST BOOK OF 2021!
The Publisher Says: Upstairs, Downstairs meets Parasite: The acclaimed author of The Talented Ribkins deconstructs painful African American stereotypes and offers a fresh and searing critique on race, class, privilege, ambition, exploitation, and the seeds of rage in America in this intricately woven and masterfully executed historical novel, set in the early twentieth century that centers around the black servants of a down-on-its heels upper-class white family.
For fifteen years August Sitwell has worked for the Barclays, a well-to-do white family who plucked him from an orphan asylum and gave him a job. The groundskeeper is part of the household’s all-black staff, along with “Miss Mamie,” the talented cook, pretty new maid Jennie Williams, and three young kitchen apprentices—the latest orphan boys Mr. Barclay has taken in to "civilize" boys like August.
But the Barclays' fortunes have fallen, and their money is almost gone. When a prospective business associate proposes selling Miss Mamie’s delicious rib sauce to local markets under the brand name “The Rib King”—using a caricature of a wildly grinning August wearing a jewel-encrusted crown on the label—Mr. Barclay, desperate for cash, agrees. Yet neither Miss Mamie nor August will see a dime. Humiliated, August grows increasingly distraught, his anger building to a rage that explodes in shocking tragedy.
Elegantly written and exhaustively researched, The Rib King is an unsparing examination of America’s fascination with black iconography and exploitation that redefines African American stereotypes in literature. In this powerful, disturbing, and timely novel, Ladee Hubbard reveals who people actually are, and most importantly, who and what they are not.
I RECEIVED THIS AS A YULE GIFT FROM MY DELIGHTFUL YOUNG GENTLEMAN CALLER. YOU'RE TOO KIND, ROB.
My Review: A book of two halves...Mr. Sitwell, the risen-through-the-ranks butler of the Barclay family, has a fascinating tale to tell about how he becomes The Rib King™ and, in an access of passionate rage, pivots from a man who knows his worth, and protects it at all costs, into a, well, talented person set on revenge for some nasty wrongs. I myownself was quite invested in this story and would give it four stars were it the only one here.
Part two follows Jennie, who was another servant in the Barclay household, as she does what needs doing in New Orleans. She has a daughter and she is the only one who can look out for the young lady's future. This would seem to be well-trodden territory. It is. I don't want you to think there was nothing to say for it, and there are definitely reasons to follow Jennie and her child. But the process was three-star territory for sure.
What made me think and fuss about how to fix this reading experience in my memory is the fact that I read The Talented Ribkins (see below) before I read this book. It led me down the garden path a bit. I was expecting to get more of the reasons and the wherefores of the earlier book's characters. It didn't really fulfill that desire in me.
But the prose flowed over my eyes, the stories felt very *real* in their outlines and very relatable to the world we saw in The Talented Ribkins; so surely four stars, after all? And that, plus the verve of Mr. Sitwell's half of the story, gave me the nudge to go from the more-grounded-in-the-object three-and-a-half up to four stars.
I got four stars'-worth of pleasure from Ladee Hubbard's unique and entertaining characters. I expect most who read my reviews will, too. I do caution y'all to get and read The Talented Ribkins first. They make a better whole-story experience that way, and they're each well worth your eyeblinks.
THE TALENTED RIBKINS
$13.99 Kindle edition, available now
Rating: 4* of five...but barely...when it should've been five
WINNER OF THE 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Novel
The Publisher Says: At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains.
What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are a bit, well, odd. Okay, very odd. For example, Johnny's father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he's been there or not.
In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.
Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he's stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother's daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.
Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.
A big-hearted novel about a family with special gifts who sometimes stumble in their efforts to succeed in life, The Talented Ribkins draws on such novels as Toni Morrison’s Sula and Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist to weave themes of race, class, and politics into a wonderfully accomplished and engaging novel.
THIS WAS A YULE GIFT TO ME FROM MY DELIGHTFUL YOUNG GENTLEMAN CALLER. YOU ROCK, ROB!
My Review: First, read this:
“Johnny Ribkins, there was a time when you could've been anything you wanted to be, a doctor, lawyer or an Indian chief...instead all you are is a damn shame.”
"It’s not your job to try and compensate other people’s lack of vision. You’ve got enough to do just trying to be true to your own."
I'm not sure what you like in terms of first novels. I hope you're willing to run around on your usual genres with a superhero-adjacent tale of the, um, strange descendents of the yahoo who lost the rights to The Rib King™—the miracle delicious barbecue sauce of all time. Johnny Ribkins is the dishonest remaining scion of the line that's made its business to get in on that amazing concoction, rightfully theirs.
But Johnny and his line were, if not superpowered, at the least gifted in some peculiar ways other mortals aren't. He, for example, can map places. And they don't have to be real yet. His maps enable him to, when his time aiding "the Justice Committee" during the 1960s Civil Rights struggle (and sinful wicked shame on our country for allowing it to be dismantled while we watch), use his unique talent to hide in undiscoverable places the money he just knows he will need in the future. (Don't expect to go too deep into how and why that should be...it's not a huge piece of this book.)
Now that he's got the need for his funds, he and his teenaged niece (with a really, really cool "talent" that utterly eludes me, personally) travel from pillar to post together literally digging the future out of the muck and dirt of the past, while he shares with his brother's daughter all the stuff he wishes he'd said, the people he knew and their effects on him and the world, with the family's latest and last survivor.
So, that four star rating up there? That's all about the Ribkins not really getting into it, about the told-not-lived nature of a reflection and road novel. It isn't bad, it's got lovely sentences that say a lot about what it means to be Othered among others, and how very sad it is to leave so few things other people care about behind for them to enjoy.
But as a first novel being the same as a first at-bat, it swings for the fences and gets an RBI though not a home run. That's still a hell of an achievement.