A LITTLE LIFE, by Hanya Yanagihara. Doubleday, 720 pp., $30.
The cover of Hanya Yanagihara's second novel, "A Little Life," is a black-and-white close-up of a handsome young man, eyes squinted tight, wincing in pain. It's almost hard to pick up the book. Once you start to learn the story that unfurls behind that image, your reluctance will be reinforced. Yet you will overcome it, repeatedly, for as long as it takes to read these 720 pages, because once she has you, Yanagihara is not going to let you go.
Four roommates who have graduated from a never-named college in Boston (Harvard, it seems) come to New York to begin their lives. Willem is an actor; Jude, a lawyer; Malcolm, an architect; and JB, an artist. Over the next 30 years, Willem will become a huge international film star and Jude, a fearsome corporate litigator. Malcolm will have his own architecture firm and will also build bookshelves, remodel apartments and build country houses for his friends. JB will become famous for paintings depicting the other three: "Jude With Cigarette"; "Willem and the Girl"; "Malcolm, Brooklyn, October 23, 11:17 p.m." (Among her many literary gifts, Yanagihara is great at naming things: every work of art, movie and play, every firm and gallery, every character and setting, right down to a Cambridge bakery called Batter, has a name that contributes texture and verisimilitude to this novel.)
While Malcolm and JB have loving families who remain part of their lives in early adulthood, Willem and Jude do not. "Our parents are dead," Willem tells a real estate agent. But while that is true in Willem's case, Jude's history is more complicated. Even his best friends know almost nothing about his past, have never been told who raised him or where, have no clue what caused his limp and his debilitating bouts of pain.
The unfolding of Jude's story from birth to age 15 happens bit by bit for the length of the book; by the time it has been laid out, about 30 years of mostly good things have followed those years of hell. He has been befriended, mentored, adopted, nurtured, revered and adored by one person after another, including the band of brothers. But none of it helps, or helps enough, while one brief, brutal relationship unleashes his most virulent memories. "The hyenas returned, more numerous and famished than before, more vigilant in their hunt." Then later: "Now, however, they don't chase him, because they know they don't need to: his life is a vast savanna, and he is surrounded by them."
Author Yanagihara herself contains multitudes. She seems able to imagine anything. Every major character in this book is male -- gay, straight, and bi; white, black, mixed race and race unknown. Cutting one's arms with a razor, the sort of friends one might entertain as a crystal meth addict, and the course of certain fatal childhood diseases are laid out with the same clarity as mathematical axioms, pressed sushi, and the Spanish Alhambra. Her characters' New York feels something like the New York of "The Goldfinch," and the hero of that book would fit right into their group.
Yanagihara's most impressive trick is the way she glides from scenes filled with those terrifying hyenas to moments of epiphany. "Wasn't it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable? Wasn't friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn't this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle?"
"A Little Life" devotes itself to answering those questions, and is, in its own dark way, a miracle.