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'Luster' Combines Nicely Tailored Prose With A Stinging Sense Of Humor


This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of a debut novel that's causing a stir in literary circles. The book "Luster" by Raven Leilani, a young Black writer, tells the story of a 20-something woman caught between high artistic dreams and a messy personal life. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the novel establishes Leilani as a writer with talent to burn.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I can't say for sure when it began - probably with the brouhaha surrounding Lena Dunham's "Girls." But we're riding a crest of books, movies and TV series about bright young women who can't figure out what to do with their brightness. And so they have sex, often really lousy sex. And they do it so casually that it unleashes my inner grandpa. I want to grab them and say, don't let him do that to you.

I felt that way at the beginning of "Luster," the crackling debut novel by Raven Leilani, a 29-year-old writer who sports a nicely tailored prose style and a stinging sense of humor. Her heroine Edie is an eagle-eyed African American woman in her 20s who can't get it together to pursue her dream of being a painter. Instead, she shares a crummy apartment in - where else? - Brooklyn and works as a low-paid drone at a publishing house, where her free-range libido leads her to have sex with seemingly everyone.

For her, men are functional. There are men, she tells us, who are an answer to a biological imperative, who might chew and swallow. And there are men I hold in my mouth until they dissolve. These men are often authority figures. One of them is Eric, a digital archivist in his 40s with whom she has an online flirtation. When they finally meet, Eric toys with her, calling her names, withholding sex and talking about his wife back in New Jersey with whom he claims to have an open marriage. He capitalizes on Edie's often masochistic need to experience life through her senses. When he asks if he can hit her, she answers yes.

But just when one fears that "Luster" might sink into endless woeful lusting, the book slyly pivots. Edie goes to Eric's home, where she encounters his wife Rebecca, a tightly-wound medical examiner with, quote, "chunky, tragic sneakers and freaky competence," unquote. She discovers they have a Black foster daughter Akila, a comics-loving tween who's not wholly at ease living with white foster parents in a white suburb. Soon, Edie, who's lost her job, is staying at their house, too. But why? Do they want her to somehow help with their daughter?

Now, as Leilani depicts Edie's "Fleabag"-y life, I couldn't help thinking of her literary forebears - writers like Mary Gaitskill, the godmother of today's spiky, sexed-up heroines, and Kathleen Collins, whose stories portrayed bohemian Black women trying to define themselves in a world that has no existing role for them. As a Black writer, Leilani is of course well-versed in the inescapable workings of race. "Luster" offers several keen moments on the theme. As when the other Black woman at her job says, you think because you slack and express no impulse control that you're, like, Black power, sticking it to the white man or whatever. But you're just exactly what they expect. Like, I understand wanting to resist their demands, but they can be mediocre. We can't.

At the same time, "Luster" isn't about race. Edie is an African American woman, but not every African American woman is Edie. What's best about "Luster" is precisely her messy, unabashed individuality. As she explores the world around her, Edie addresses us in a funny, shrewd narrative voice that precisely describes the wide-ranging contours of her life, be it losing her virginity, watching Rebecca cut up cadavers, going to Comic-Con or showing how police respond to two young Black women walking in a suburban neighborhood.

Like many young novelists, Leilani sometimes lets her story drift. Edie is more a noticer than a doer, and she doesn't always flesh out other characters as richly as she does her heroine. Although Edie's story begins with her attraction to Eric, he doesn't seem to interest Leilani very much, which might actually be the point. In truth, both she and Edie are far more fascinated by Rebecca, whose bristling isolation, clinical cool and unexpected boldness make her something of Edie's white, middle-aged alter ego, one who may possibly help open up Edie's art.

Near the end of the novel, Edie explains that what she wants her painting to do is, quote, "document how we survive or, in some cases, how we don't." In this, she's pretty clearly speaking for her creator. While it's far from clear that Edie will survive, let alone become the artist she dreams of being, "Luster" is documentary evidence that Leilani herself has already arrived.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Luster," the debut novel by Raven Leilani. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jeffrey Toobin, who's written a new book about the Mueller investigation, the impeachment and how Trump managed to survive both. It's called "True Crimes And Misdemeanors." Toobin is a New Yorker staff writer and CNN's chief legal analyst. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.