cover image The Talented Ribkins

The Talented Ribkins

Ladee Hubbard. Melville House (PRH, dist.), $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61219-636-7

Blending the superhuman with the civil rights movement, this debut novel is an ambitious, if uneven, attempt to explore new dimensions of the struggle for racial justice. Johnny Ribkins—a 72-year-old with an uncanny talent for making maps of any place, whether he’s ever seen it or not—has five days to pay a debt to a Florida crime boss. He sets out on a whirlwind tour of the state to dig up all the secret caches of money he’d planted decades earlier, when the Justice Committee—the organization he founded with similarly gifted family members and friends to protect black activists in the ’60s—was dissolving. The ideals that animated the Justice Committee feel long gone: after his dream of making “more theoretical” maps that would chart not just space but “actual corridors of power” failed, Johnny turned to facilitating burglaries using his blueprints. Johnny’s lightning-quick friend Flash is solely focused on getting his sprinter son to the Olympics, while Johnny’s cousin Simone, able to “make people think they were in the presence of the most beautiful woman they’d ever seen,” has used her power to seduce and marry a wealthy judge. The mix of lofty ideals, uncanny skills, and human frailty Hubbard invokes is compelling, but the debt-repayment plot brings with it ever more convoluted revelations about Johnny’s past. Amid these ponderous (and often repetitive) historical detours, Hubbard’s unique conceit never quite becomes the provocative take on race relations it aspires to be. (Aug.)