Great expectations A novel

Vinson Cunningham

Book - 2024

"I'd seen the Senator speak a few times before my life got caught up, however distantly, with his, but the first time I can remember paying real attention was when he delivered the speech announcing his run for the Presidency. When David first hears the Senator from Illinois speak, he feels deep ambivalence. Intrigued by the Senator's idealistic rhetoric, David also wonders how he'll balance the fervent belief and inevitable compromises it will take to become the United States's first Black president. Great Expectations is about David's eighteen months working for the Senator's presidential campaign. Along the way David meets a myriad of people who raise a set of questions-questions of history, art, race, ...religion, and fatherhood, all of which force David to look at his own life anew and come to terms with his identity as a young Black man and father in America"--

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Subjects
Genres
Political fiction
Novels
Published
London ; New York : Hogarth 2024.
Language
English
Main Author
Vinson Cunningham (author)
Edition
First edition
Physical Description
pages cm
ISBN
9780593448236
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

No need to name the senator from Illinois running for president in 2008. The narrator's astute descriptions leave no doubt as to his identity as he finds himself working for the campaign. A Black New Yorker raised in a Pentecostal church who lost his father at age 10 and an aspiring writer who dropped out of college after getting his dancer girlfriend pregnant, then dumping her, David is working as a private tutor when his glamorous employer makes the connection. Soon he finds himself meeting celebrities, hobnobbing with Black elites on Martha's Vineyard, bunking in a moldering trailer in New Hampshire, navigating Iowa, partying in L.A., and witnessing the victory speech of the first Black president of the U.S. in Chicago, all while pondering tightrope questions of faith, power, morality, charisma, and politics with finesse and depth. David's ruminations over family, home, race, religion, literature, basketball, music, class, identity, accountability, and what it takes to be a genuine leader are fused with memories and tricky situations, every set piece saturated with feelings and fresh and provocative insights. Cunningham, a writer for the New Yorker and former staffer on Barack Obama's first presidential campaign and in the White House, has written an electrifying first novel and bildungsroman of consummate artistry and sensitivity, honed vision and wit.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

New Yorker staff writer Cunningham debuts with a sophisticated bildungsroman that draws on his work for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. His narrator, David, is a Black man in his early 20s, adrift in Chicago and searching for role models, having neglected his early academic promise after unexpectedly becoming a father and subsequently flunking out of college. Beverly, a leading Black businesswoman whose middle-schooler son David tutors in English and math, connects him with the campaign of an Obama-like politician known only as "the Senator." David keenly longs for something to believe in, but despite his brushes on the campaign trail with Cornel West and other leading Black figures, his work mainly consists of selling tickets to fund-raising dinners and arranging staged meetings between the Senator and voters. The political plot is secondary--readers know the campaign will, like Obama's, follow a victorious arc--freeing Cunningham to shine in David's recollections of his upbringing in a Pentecostal church run by a charismatic pastor who bears some resemblance to the Senator. More than a chronicle of idealism and disillusionment, this is an extended exploration of the power and limits of believing in something bigger than oneself. Cunningham's remarkable first novel matches the scale of its namesake. (Mar.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A young man reckons with race, family, and disillusionment on a presidential campaign. David, the narrator of Cunningham's elegant and contemplative debut, is a 20-something Black man who in 2007 has stumbled into a minor role on the fundraising team for a U.S. senator and upstart presidential candidate. (He's unnamed, but it's plainly Barack Obama.) David needs something to believe in: A young father, he's flunked out of college and is making ends meet by tutoring. Even so, the campaign's high-flown hope-and-change rhetoric is a world removed from his job greeting wealthy donors, accepting checks, and helping to arrange more meet-and-greets. So he contemplates how he fits in as he scrutinizes the backgrounds of the high-dollar donors and celebrity boosters, particularly the Black ones. (Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and André Leon Talley have brief cameos.) The campaign's conclusion is no surprise, of course, but the book is alive in its intellectual detours, with Cunningham considering religion, race, sex, film, politics, fatherhood, and more. (David's memories are particularly affecting when it comes to music, especially his experience singing in church.) The tone of these asides is essayistic--Cunningham is a cultural critic at the New Yorker--yet none of them feel stapled-on. Rather, the campaign offers a sensible springboard for contemplation of pretty much everything. As David's mentor, Beverly, tells him, "The real thing is: How about you get some power and then use it?" She's talking about Black leadership, but her comment also relates to David's sense of self. Cunningham's choice of title is nervy, but though the story only vaguely echoes Dickens (Beverly is Havisham-adjacent), it perfectly encapsulates the kinds of anxiety that follow a smart young man still coming into being. Why let a perfectly good title go to waste? A top-shelf intellectual bildungsroman. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1 I'd seen the Senator speak a few times before my life got caught up, however distantly, with his, but the first time I can remember paying real attention was when he delivered the speech announcing his run for the presidency. He spoke before the pillars of the Illinois statehouse, where, something like a century and a half earlier, Abraham Lincoln had performed the same ritual. The Senator brought his elegant wife and young daughters onstage when he made his entrance. A song by U2 played as they waved. All four wore long coats and breathed ghosts of visible vapor into the cold February morning. It was as frigid and sunny out there in Springfield as it was almost a thousand miles away, where I sat alone, hollering distance from the northern woods of Central Park, watching the Senator on TV. "Giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us together here today," he began. I recognized that black-­pulpit touch immediately, and felt almost flattered by the feeling--­new to me--­of being pandered to so directly by someone who so nakedly wanted something in return. It was later reported that he had spent the moments before the address praying in a circle with his family and certain friends, including the light-­skinned stentor who was his pastor in Chicago. Perhaps the churchy greeting was a case of spillover from the sound of the pastor's prayer. Or--­and from the vantage of several years, this seems by far the likelier answer--­the Senator had begun, even then, at the outset of his campaign, to understand his supporters, however small their number at that point, as congregants, as members of a mystical body, their bonds invisible but real. They waved and stretched their arms toward the stage; some lifted red, white, and blue signs emblazoned with his name in a sleek sans serif. The whole thing seemed aimed at making you cry. I wonder now (this, again, with all the benefit and distortion of hindsight) whether these first words of the campaign and their hungry reception by the crowd were the sharpest harbinger--more than demography or conscious strategy--­of the victory to come. Toward the end of the speech, during a stream of steadily intensifying clauses whose final pooling was a plea to join him in the work of renewal, he wondered "if you"--­the assembled--­"feel destiny calling." In bidding goodbye, he said, "Thank you," and then, more curiously, "I love you." Despite his references, overt and otherwise, to Lincoln--­and, more gingerly, to King--­his closer resemblance was to John Winthrop making phrases on the ship Arbella, assuring his fellow travelers that the religion by whose light they'd left Europe in 1630 could cross spheres, from the personally salvific to the civic and concrete. If you could love God and love your neighbor, Winthrop promised, you could build a city, too, and that city could be a great monument to the Beloved. That swift motion--­God to polis and back up, shiningly, to God--­made Winthrop an unintentional paganizer. His attempt to subjugate politics to sacred things had only, over time, made the holy more worldly, more easily used by the likes of the Senator. I was only freewheelingly guessing; feeling bright, disconnected, and experimental; trying to bring a few loose intimations into closer communion with one another--­but I thought I sensed a quality similar to Winthrop's in the Senator. Or maybe, I thought, doubling back as I've always done, he was the well-­developed melody of which Winthrop was the earliest theme. The Senator had invoked God at the top of his text, a numbingly common move in these settings, and sounded comfortable, even natural, doing it, which was becoming somewhat more rare. He seemed to have resolved an older generation's jittery and overscrupulous tension about church and state. He'd figured out how to say aloud and with good cheer and without seeming to be some nationalist-­imperialist pervert what had been implicit for too long: that now we had a country that could more or less plausibly claim--­as much by dint of its world-­shredding misdeeds as by its misty glories--­not to serve God but to be God. Render unto Caesar and rest your conscience. Without any off-­putting intensity, the Senator insisted, above all, on faith. "In my heart I know you didn't just come here for me," he said. "You came here because you believe in what this country can be." "Your Love Keeps Lifting Me" played him off the stage. The campaign, just beginning, was still a scarcely glimpsed frontier. I can't say that I thought he would win. I realize only now, too late for it to matter much, that the Senator reminded me of my pastor, who had died not long before the beginning of the campaign and, in those days, was often on my mind. Both men were tall and skinny, both hooked their thumbs slightly and used their other outstretched fingers as scythes cutting syntax into the air. Both had the complexion of a cardboard box left out to bleach in the sun. The pastor wore glasses, like I did, but the Senator didn't. Both had smooth, flexible voices that could sound rough in a pinch. Their similarities aside, though, that enigmatic word--­ destiny --­must have put me in mind of my pastor, too. I can remember one Friday night, many years earlier--­I must have been twelve--­at a Bible-­study session in the former Elks lodge in Harlem where our church held its services. My pastor had slowly paced the two long aisles of the church. Wearing a zip-­up sweater and soft slacks instead of his Sunday robes, he gave a long disquisition on a topic he loved: the many ways in which the future belonged to God. We believed in predestination, he said, not in destiny; the latter word, despite what it shared in etymology with the former, contained no implication of an Author, and had therefore been co-­opted by the squishy New Age. As he talked, he held the microphone loosely but securely, like how good tennis players hold the racket. He looked around the room, catching gazes and letting them drop, smiling prettily even as he unfolded mysteries that terrified me. The truth, he said, was that your life--­and this was freedom--­was a gesture minutely choreographed by God. To seek salvation required free will, but the one who had planted, and could count, the hairs on your head had also engineered your mechanisms of choice. Your heart could open only if He'd given it a hinge. He chose you before you chose Him, and so it was with every other eventuality, no matter how hidden or seemingly accidental. You are not lucky, my mother often said, you are blessed. Excerpted from Great Expectations: A Novel by Vinson Cunningham All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.