Excerpt from The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Incendiaries

A Novel

by R O. Kwon

The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon X
The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 224 pages
    Jul 2019, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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She kept dancing, so I did, too. By the time she stopped, she looked flushed, out of breath. She lifted black, long hair into a makeshift ponytail. We shouted again, and I watched a drop of sweat trickle from Phoebe's hairline toward the clavicle niche, where it might pool, I thought, to be lapped up. Thick bangs, damp at the tips, parted to expose her forehead. I wanted to kiss that spot, its sudden openness: I leaned down. She pulled close.

Since then, three weeks ago, we talked; we kissed, but that was all. I didn't know what I had the right to ask. I waited, while the rest of Edwards played musical beds. Late at night, if I walked to the bathroom, I crossed paths with still more girls listing tipsily down the hall in oversized, borrowed polo shirts. They flashed smiles, then swerved back into my suitemates' rooms. I returned to mine, but I could still hear the squeals, the high-pitched cries. In no time, a pretty girl might zigzag into my bed, and if it hadn't happened yet, it was excitingly attainable—if I said the right words, reached for the right girl—

Instead, on the nights I couldn't sleep, I imagined Phoebe's sidling hips, the fist-sized breasts. She flailed and squirmed. With an arched back, rosebud ass soaring up, she starred in solo fantasies. The fact that I still hadn't slept with Phoebe, or anyone, didn't preclude these scenarios. If anything, it helped. Irritation absolved me of the guilt I might have felt about the uses to which I put the spectral mouth and breasts. Each time this ghost Phoebe jumped in my lap, I bit her lips. I licked fingers; I grabbed fistfuls of made-up skin until, sometimes, when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I'd dreamed into being.

* * *

I pushed through a revolving door into the Colonial: a private club, college-affiliated. She'd invited me to have a drink. One last date, I'd resolved. With Phoebe, I kept spending time I didn't have. I rushed from classes to Michelangelo's, an Italian restaurant fifteen miles from Noxhurst's town limits—distant enough, I hoped, that no fellow students would walk in. I took the bus. I waited tables; I relied on staff meals. I filched apples from the Edwards dining hall. I received scholarship funding, but not enough. I told no one.

She was sitting alone at the bar, back facing out. I touched the girl's waist, and she slipped down from the stool. Phoebe's smile, angling up, floated toward me. She asked the bow-tied barkeep, Bix, to bring me a gimlet.

You'll love it, Will, she said. Bix makes, no joke, the world's best gimlets. He puts something extra in. I've asked, but he won't tell me what it is.

If it was my recipe to give, I would, he said.

I believed him. It was obvious he liked Phoebe. She asked how I was, and I said I'd passed a man playing the fiddle while I walked here. I'd paused, to listen. I had no small bills, so I'd put quarters in his upside-down hat. Oh, ho, he said. It's high-­rolling time. It's like jingle bells tonight.

He threw out the coins, I said, to Phoebe. I forced a smile, but I hadn't told the story well. I'd tried to help him, all to be mocked. If I could just tell him as a gag, I'd forget his ridicule. But then, as though she heard the version I intended, Phoebe obliged me, and laughed. She asked what I'd said next. I rattled along. I was pleased; unsettled, too. It was odd, how well she listened. It made me anxious I'd reveal more than I should. When I could, I turned the questions: an old evangelist's trick. In general, people love talking about themselves. If, at times, with Phoebe, I felt a slight resistance, I pushed through.

It's my first time in the Colonial, I said. I asked if she came here often. She explained the club's rituals and traditions, its complicated drinking-cup rules. A ghost-white candle stub guttered between us. I kept asking questions. I liked watching Phoebe talk. She halted, circled the point. Lit up with her own stories, she laughed in big gusts that blew out the candle flame. Bix relit it; before long, she put it out again.

Excerpted from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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