The Talented Ribkins
by Ladee Hubbard
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Melville House (August 8, 2017)
Winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award
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 for Johnny.
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 rather super powers that are rather sad, but superpowers nonetheless. 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.
“For sheer reading pleasure Ladee Hubbard’s original and wildly inventive novel is in a class by itself.” —Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning author of The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon
“Crafty and wistful…Hubbard weaves this narrative with prodigious skill and compelling warmth. You anticipate a movie while wondering if any movie could do this fascinating family…well, justice. To describe this novel, as someone inevitably will, as Song of Solomon reimagined as a Marvel Comics franchise is to shortchange its cleverness and audacity.” —Kirkus, starred review
“The Talented Ribkins is a charming and delightful debut novel with a profound heart, and Ladee Hubbard’s voice is a welcome original.” —Mary Gaitskill, author of Bad Behavior and Veronica
“What a pleasure it was to take a road trip with The Talented Ribkins, a simultaneously gifted and flawed family, sharp-witted but prone to making utterly human errors. Ladee Hubbard has given us a fresh and original debut novel.” —Jami Attenberg, author of All Grown Up
“With The Talented Ribkins, Ladee Hubbard proves herself to be a rare talent who pops onto the scene fully formed as a writer of power and purpose. This is a heart-wrenching quest into the absurdity that is family. Like the best literary fantasies, The Talented Ribkins succeeds because the heart that beats at its center couldn’t be realer.” —Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day and Pym
The Judge’s face would appear in his mind, shaking his head as he told Johnny that the shame was not in asking for help but in needing it in the first place.
People judge you on what you show the world. Stop showing your ass…
All that work we did just to get this far, so these kids could have better opportunities than we did and what do they do with it? Walk around slurring their words with their pants hanging half way down their asses? Where’s the dignity in that, Johnny?
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 had no idea what to expect from this book but I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity and quality of the story and writing. The Ribkins family wasn’t super heroes but they had “peculiar” abilities, they called them talents, I saw them as abilities. Various family members were able to perform unusual feats or skills, although they didn’t always seem to harness or utilize their abilities to the best purpose or means. The main character of Johnny could chart elaborate and unusual maps of places he had never been, his brother could climb the sides of tall buildings and walls, his father had been able to see in the dark, his cousin could spit firecrackers, his young niece could catch anything thrown at her, and a cousin could transform her appearance. Johnny had led an unsatisfying and unfulfilling life of crime and was currently seventy-two years old. However, in the turbulent 60’s, he had felt a part of something important as an activist in the Segregated South and used his mapping skills to provide protection for those working in the Civil Rights Movement. But Johnny was now a tired and elderly man, alone, and in trouble. He had been caught skimming from his criminal boss and given one week to come up with a sizable chunk of cash. Luckily, Johnny had established an unusual lifetime habit of burying money and merchandise from his sticky finger days, and he had hidden his lucre in some rather unusual spots belonging to friends and family, although unbeknownst to the owners scattered across the State of Florida. As Johnny traveled about on his real-life treasure hunt, he reunited and reconnected with many of his long neglected family, old friends, and a few foes from years past. To get himself out of the hole, Johnny had to dig a lot of them.
The premise of The Talented Ribkins was unique and intriguing while the writing and storyline were intricate, complex, and multi-leveled. There was a bevy of characters to keep track of, and every single one of them was fascinating, exceptionally atypical, alluringly nuanced, and fell somewhere in the range of quirky to outright bizarre. I was captivated although frequently a bit befuddled. I was enthralled yet also felt a bit out of focus, or as if I never had a full grip, or standing on shifting sand. I wasn’t actually bewildered but tantalized by the puzzling tale that had me worrying that I had possibly missed some significant details. However, the interconnecting threads finally knitted into a cunningly devised and colorful tapestry that was well worth the second-guessing, and provided an even more satisfying and emotive conclusion than I could ever have anticipated, although this crafty author certainly made me work for it. Ladee Hubbard is a sly one; she has mad skills and my deep admiration.
Laddee Hubbard is the winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for the Short Story. She holds a BA from Princeton University, an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Talented Ribkins is her first novel.