The Year in Fiction (Vol. 109)
The Year in Fiction by Bruce Allen
The year 1997 was highlighted by new books from several of the English-speaking world's indisputably major writers. And no reappearance was more surprising than that of the late Anthony Burgess (1917–93), whose last completed fiction, Byrne ("a novel in verse"), was published posthumously to high praise in Great Britain and rather more tempered admiration in the U.S.
Byrne relates, primarily in ottava rima (the verse form most famously employed in Byron's Don Juan), the rambunctious artistic and amatory career of Michael Byrne, the scion of Irish potato farmers and shopkeepers, a gifted composer and a great success throughout Europe—most notoriously in Nazi Germany, where he successfully collaborates with a musical Joseph Goebbels. Then, in a surprising about-face, the focus shifts to Byrne's middle-aged children ("the fruits of my insemination"), struggling with unresolved feelings about their scapegrace parent as they journey to London for the reading of his will. This gloriously entertaining portrait of the artist spares neither its probably autobiographical protagonist (who knows he's at best a flawed genius) nor the twentieth century, which Burgess seems not to have liked much. But few readers will resist its resourceful and often quite brilliant versifying (for example, this, of a Russian physician: "His origin was Minsk or Pinsk or Moscow. Pe / Rusing Tim's chart he called for a bronchoscopy"). To the end, Anthony Burgess remained a vital, restless, mischievous creative force. Byron would have approved.
Three worthy novels by major Welsh writers made their first U.S. appearances. Monica, by critic and journalist Saunders Lewis, details the romantic unhappiness of a housewife betrayed by her romantic imagination with a frankness (doubtless inspired by Madame Bovary) that made it a succès de scandale upon its publication in 1930. Poet Caradog Prichard's One Moonlit Night (1961) skillfully fictionalizes the inhibiting parental and cultural environment that stifles its dreamy protagonist's desires to escape his moribund village. And Ram with Red Horns by Rhys Davies, a fine, flinty novel unpublished during his lifetime (1903–78), traces in striking realistic and symbolic detail the psychological deterioration of a long-married woman who murders her unfaithful husband, then tries to make peace with her (vividly characterized) neighbors as well as her own guilt and fear. Arguably unfinished (its ending is rushed), this is nevertheless a gripping fiction and a perfect introduction to Davies's justly celebrated novels and stories of rural Wales.
The Springs of Affection collects the short stories of the late Maeve Brennan, a longtime American citizen and New Yorker staff writer whose fiction endures as unmistakably (and irrepressibly) Irish. These twenty-one tales, which all appeared in Brennan's two published collections, include precisely detailed sketches of her girlhood in Dublin ("The Devil in Us" is especially acute about Catholicism and its discontents) and ampler studies of adult marital unhappiness and detente—most memorably the long title story's complex, elegiac portrayal of a troubled couple who are even in death the objects of lingering family resentments.
Penelope Fitzgerald, who began publishing fiction at the age of sixty, has in the twenty years since produced half a dozen sophisticated and surprisingly widely ranging novels; none is more accomplished than her newest, The Blue Flower. This is a character study of Friedrich von Hardenberg, a late eighteenth-century German idealist and visionary (en route to becoming the Romantic poet Novalis) as restless seeking intellect, perversely unconventional son and brother, and worshipful suitor to a beautiful young girl who dies in adolescence. Fitzgerald here evokes with masterly concision both the intellectual ferment of "Fritz's" time and the awkward development of his own Romantic temperament in a perfectly calculated little novel that speaks densely packed volumes about its remote and immensely appealing subject.
Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, a 1978 novel previously published only in Great Britain, is a slighter though scarcely less resonant story of a well-meaning widow (Florence Green) whose title venture, which she establishes in an abandoned house in Eastern England's rural marshland country, falls afoul of local myopia and philistinism, and—in the person of a Machiavellian retired general's wife, the formidable Mrs. Gamart—deeply vested conflicting interests. It's a social comedy that deftly analyzes the fate of culture in its time (1959), and, surely, ours—another virtuosic demonstration of its invaluable author's alert wit and becoming humanity.
A rather more acerbic tone sounds throughout Part of the Furniture, another hilariously brusque bildungsroman from octogenarian Mary Wesley (who first published at seventy; Penelope Fitzgerald must wonder what took her so long). She is an elliptical writer, who scorns conventional exposition, description, and pacing, and is something of an acquired taste. But readers attuned to her crisp rhetoric will find much to enjoy in this tart comedy, whose events occur (as in many of her novels) during the Second World War and long thereafter, and which examines the maturing of its young heroine (drolly named Juno) through a cataclysmic loss of innocence, peaceful country life with its own surreal dimensions, and a perfectly credible romance with a much older man. It is as urbane a pastoral as can be found; a refreshingly saturnine comic blend of the idyllic with the everyday.
Fay Weldon files more of her fetchingly murderous field reports on the battle of the genders in Wicked Women, a vigorous collection (her fourth) of tonally varied and often very entertaining short stories. The usual suspects include adulterous or indifferent husbands and wives slow to assert their rights, and the reader occasionally feels he's re-entering overfamiliar territories. But all the stories are sharply written, and two belong among her best work: a harrowing portrait of a teenaged girl stunted by her parents' incompatibility ("Heat-Haze") and the delicious "Not Even a Blood Relation," about the tug of wills, so to speak, between a feisty widow and her three greedy adult daughters.
Muriel Spark's Open to the Public offers such "New and Collected Stories" as her classic long tales "Bang Bang You're Dead" and "The Go-Away Bird" and a miscellany of briefer stories that play sophisticated (and often arch) variations on what seems her abiding theme: the inherence of the grotesque and fantastic within the mundane, as observed by a knowing, preternaturally keen, and oddly detached eye.
Spark's new novel, Reality and Dreams, adroitly wraps enigma within riddle in the story of a prominent film director and writer (Tom), crippled by an accident on the set, whose recovery—and Olympian plans for future films, in which he effectively plays God—contrasts amusingly with the job-related and other catastrophes that befall all those within his extended family and orbit. Spark gives nothing away, allowing the delighted reader to wonder whether it is Tom's bland appropriation of others' lives that sets the tone for their decline (thrown into wry relief by his continuing good fortune)—or if all is, indeed, accident. The novel's very elusiveness underscores, as it magnifies, its very considerable quirkiness and charm.
Sardonic wit is the chief virtue of Margaret Drabble's novel The Witch of Exmoor, an overwritten portrayal of a prototypically contemporary middle-class English clan whose only really interesting member is the eponymous matriarch, a "mad" recluse whose disgust with her acquisitive family is much more tolerable than Drabble's omniscient authorial scorn. Edna O'Brien's Down by the River is an uncharacteristically leaden variant of her usually razor-sharp studies of rural Irish poverty and despair—a story of the consequences of paternal sexual abuse too discursive and accusatory to be effective fiction.
Altered States is another of Anita Brookner's dry anatomies of timid souls whose waking lives never fulfill their daydreams—unusual in that its protagonist, Alan Sherwood, stimulates the same microscopic attention to emotional detail most often lavished on her women characters. Though not essentially different otherwise from her earlier novels, it's a haunting character study, beautifully done.
Carol Shields's Larry's Party boldly follows her award-winning novel The Stone Diaries with a warmly funny in-depth portrayal of a middle-aged landscape designer (and, most notably, "maze maker") awkwardly coming to terms with the puzzles of his own career and romantic insecurities and confusions. The novel feels rather too rigidly structured and patterned, though Larry Weller is one of Shields's most attractively humanly fallible creations.
Penelope Lively's clever studies of embattled domesticity are collected in The Five Thousand and One Nights, a scattershot volume redeemed by a powerful portrait of a woman's unease when out of her comfortably familiar environment ("The Slovenian Giantess"), and the, uh, lively title story, which reinvents Scheherazade as an overworked supermom.
A. S. Byatt's collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye offers both the colorful pleasures of the traditional fairytales it expertly recreates ("The Story of the Eldest Princess" is especially spellbinding) and some very clever speculations on the question of whether stories do (or should) "imprison" characters, hence denying their freedom to act. The relevant convolutions appear most teasingly, and pleasingly in the title story's confrontation between a traveling folklorist and the genie who more than satisfies her scholarly and womanly needs.
Other writers of established reputation who published new work in 1997 include former (surprise) Booker Prize winner, Scotland's James Kelman, whose Busted Scotch gathers "selected stories" from twenty years' worth of this defiantly abrasive writer's tightly focused character studies. Derelicts and drifters aren't the only victims of circumstance observed in these bleak, lyrically foulmouthed dramas (many are monologues) which concentrate on the resentful emotions of people who sense, even when they cannot articulate, their connections with others ("Greyhound for Breakfast" and the superb "Pictures" are especially rewarding). Kelman probably won't be invited to high tea with the Queen Mum, but that's her loss. He's a very skillful and distinctive writer.
William Boyd's cosmopolitanism (and unevenness) are typically displayed in The Destiny of Nathalie X and Other Stories, a geographically and tonally varied collection which ranges over three continents and a thematic gamut embracing Ludwig Wittgenstein, a fashion designer's World War II, and, most amusingly, an African film director's blithe conquest of Hollywood.
Australian David Malouf's Conversations at Curlow Creek effectively superimposes a history of Irish resistance to British oppression over another of his intense studies of the permutations of masculine friendship. Though it's really only an extended anecdote, J. P. Donleavy's The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms, which portrays a Scarsdale matron dumped by her husband and educating herself to life outside her privileged world, draws a cartoon that blossoms into an immensely likable character. And Barry Unsworth's After Hannibal is a vigorous social comedy about latter-day "invasions" of Italy's Umbrian region by a multinational gaggle of tourists skillfully manipulated by an urbane, amoral attorney. It reads much like Muriel Spark in one of her sunnier moods.
More serious matters are examined in Nicholas Mosley's Children of Darkness and Light, a crabbed and surprisingly absorbing story of a veteran journalist investigating an alleged "miracle" in a northern England backwater, and thence his own moral nature; Hans Koning's Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History, a suave and cryptic account of a millennarian leftist group's plot to redistribute the world's wealth and reorganize its power structures; and especially The Untouchable, Irish novelist John Banville's expert fictionalization of the life of British art historian—and Russian spy—Anthony Blunt (as protagonist Victor Maskell). It's an ingenious restoration, one might say, which vividly traces the biographical and emotional connections among politics, art, sex, and a fragmented psyche's quest for authenticity.
A refreshing touch of exoticism enlivens Salt, a pleasant, borderline-sentimental tale of Caribbean folk culture at odds with "civilizing" British interests, set in its author Earl Lovelace's native Trinidad. Better still are two novels from Guyanese-born British writer Roy Heath, set in his homeland and focused on an endearing hustler, Kwaku Cholmondeley, a comically harried husband, father, and self-justifying opportunist. Kwaku, first published in 1982, offers a vivid picaresque introduction to its eponymous "shoemaker …, inveterate liar, would-be photographer, near-bigamist and father of eight children." Its successor, The Ministry of Hope, memorably recounts Kwaku's adventures as a self-created "faith healer," failed bureaucrat, and spy. No one writing today can match Roy Heath's perfect lightness of touch and infectious love for his characters. He's an international treasure awaiting the acclaim he deserves.
West Indian Caryl Phillips's Nature of Blood comprises three murky interwoven novellas (including a retelling of "Othello") that demonstrate all too shrilly the effects of ethnic and racial injustice. Hanif Kureishi's stories in Love in a Blue Time modify his trademark comedies of Pakistanis making it (or not) in London, in a comparatively dour series of portraits of middle-aged compromise and malaise.
Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries received a mixed press, but struck this reader as willfully dense postmodernist caterwauling about the impossibility of writing stories (the earlier Winterson simply went ahead and wrote them). Canadian Guy Vanderhaeghe's ambitious novel The Englishman's Boy is a strongly imagined story that yokes together with only middling success a satirical portrait of Hollywood in the 1920s and the eerie piecemeal saga of a massacre of Indians fifty years earlier. It's a novel that keeps threatening to become wonderful, but sadly, remains curiously uninvolving.
Patrick McGrath's Asylum is much better: a subtle and really rather frightening analysis (by the doctor who only imperfectly comprehends her) of a woman mental patient's distracted surrender to evil in the person of the murderous sculptor for whom she has abandoned all others and all else. A grim, fascinating, beautifully controlled fiction.
Will Self, that cheeky Pretender to the maverick throne pretty much conceded to Martin Amis, reaffirms his iconoclastic credentials with Great Apes, an impish reversal of "the natural order" in which the title creatures are evolution's masterpiece and humanity of a far lower mental and moral order. A virtual anthology of clever gags and, at its best, something more: an oddly moving story of a troubled simian's efforts to subdue his baser (human) impulses.
Geoff Nicholson's Bleeding London, a tightly plotted romp about three variously obsessed misfits seeking love, revenge, and avocational fulfillment in the city of Dickens and Margaret Thatcher, while dependably entertaining, is both a little more dryly schematic and a little less rudely inventive than one expects from the comic surrealist who gave us Still Life with Volkswagen and Footsucker.
A Change of Climate, a 1994 novel by Hilary Mantel (whose more recent An Experiment in Love was successfully published in the U.S.), describes with skillfully understated wit and empathy the comic-horrible loss of illusions experienced by an idealistic English couple who journey as hopeful missionaries to the hell of South Africa. And Shena Mackay's An Advent Calendar, which appeared in Great Britain in 1971, expertly records the emotional and sexual misadventures involving an ill-matched married pair, a vulnerable teenager, and their even more ill-chosen various lovers, in a savage comedy that climaxes with a thoroughly satisfying quiet resolution. Many people are beginning to believe, with good reason, that Mackay is one of the best writers around.
Interesting second books from newer writers included Neil Bartlett's meticulously rendered, almost neo-Victorian story of homosexual love in 1920s London (The House on Brooke Street); Kate Atkinson's delectable mixture of pastoral romance and family chronicle (Human Croquet); and Vikram Chandra's accomplished Love and Longing in Bombay, five linked tales of ghostly visitation, sexual conflict, and murder. Beautifully written, and filled with superbly realized characters and dramatic scenes, this was one of the year's very best books.
Notable first novels included The Jade Peony, Chinese Canadian Wayson Choy's intelligently textured tale of emigrant siblings growing up a half-century ago in Vancouver's Chinatown; Scot Alan Warner's sardonic portrayal of a resourcefully amoral young woman (Morvern Callar); Robert McLiam Wilson's anatomy of working-class ennui and despair vis-à-vis IRA violence in contemporary Belfast (Eureka Street); and—the most substantial of these four—Niall Williams's Four Letters of Love, a complex story of thwarted passion set in Dublin and near Galway, in which the fates of withdrawn Nicholas Coughlan and troubled Isabel Gore are slowly, quite believably knitted together. This is a carefully structured, deeply reflective novel (much of its important "action" contained in letters that never reach their intended readers), well worth the time and effort required to enter its deliberately dreamlike, somewhat insubstantial world.
Andrew Miller's Ingenious Pain spins a bizarre period tale (reminiscent of Patrick Suskind's Perfume) of an eighteenth-century physician's development from a paragon of objectivity (who, remarkably, cannot feel either pain or pleasure) into a suffering, and therefore more sentient specimen of humanity. It's a richly imagined and often very funny portrayal of the limitations of Reason in a culture that pretends to prize it above all other virtues.
Mick Jackson's Underground Man offers a stunning portrait of nineteenth-century England as well as an ingenious imagining of the life of William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, Duke of Portland and a fabulously wealthy eccentric who builds for himself an escape from the world in a series of vast tunnels dug beneath his Nottinghamshire manor. Lengthy excerpts "From His Grace's Journal" are balanced against accounts of (and speculations about) the nobleman's "madness" by various tradesmen, miscellaneous social acquaintances, and townspeople in a beautifully crafted Chinese-box puzzle of a novel that makes of its unlikely protagonist a sympathetic and very nearly heroic character.
There were three other superb first novels from abroad. Fugitive Pieces, by Canadian poet Anne Michaels, employs amazingly precise language and gorgeous imagery to tell the story of Jakob Beer, a Polish orphan who survives the Holocaust and, under the tutelage of the polymath Greek geologist who rescues him from the Nazis, becomes an accomplished poet. In a brilliant shift of focus, it is also a story of the aesthetic and moral awakening of a young scholar who, years afterward, discovers the late Jakob's journals. It's a subtle and very involving story about how memory both does and does not help endangered people to survive.
A similar theme informs Irish poet and critic Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark, a wonderfully written story of a Northern Ireland (Derry) family, destroyed, though still clinging stubbornly together, by a relentless succession of deaths and by betrayals that have set brother against brother and will affect forever its young narrator's fumbling efforts to understand his relatives' violence and despair. A virtually perfect construction, and one of the year's most moving books.
One of the most warmly praised was Indian film writer Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things, an intricate and absorbing tale, crammed with colorful local detail and extravagant figurative language, about a young twin brother and sister brought up among a rich, eccentric Kerala family, a forbidden liaison that defies boundaries of caste and class, and the connected aftermaths of two mysterious deaths that haunt the twins Estha and Rahel long years afterward. Roy's fragmented, almost surreptitious approach to her novel's hidden center is itself a thing of beauty; the story becomes both teasingly diffuse and nerve-wrackingly suspenseful. One understands why it won last year's Booker Prize and established Roy as one of the English-speaking world's most promising younger novelists.
The most highly praised American novel of 1997 was Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a story set during the final days of the Civil War and unmistakably modeled on Homer's Odyssey. It describes the harrowing return homeward of Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier whose destination is Cold Mountain in North Carolina, and also a reunion with Ada, the city-bred girl he left behind and aims to marry. Frazier juxtaposes Inman's often interrupted journey with Ada's slow maturing as she learns to run the moribund farm left her by her late father. The novel's texture is movingly deepened by echoes of the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson (whom Ada's preacher father had revered) and eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram, whose Travels is the book that sustains Inman through the perils and disillusionments he must endure before his odyssey is concluded. Cold Mountain is a masterly performance—a haunting image of America in its greatest time of travail.
A comparatively neglected debut novel that has much in common with Frazier's triumph, Howard Bahr's The Black Flower, explores with impressive delicacy and power the ordeal of a veteran Confederate soldier whose confusion of allegiances climaxes at the battle of Nashville. And Tom Dyja's Play for a Kingdom fashions moving drama as well as a convincing panoramic view of the Civil War's conclusion from its ingenious premise: the accidental meeting of Confederate and Union troops on a makeshift baseball field and the series of "matches" that absorb these players as they await a crucial meeting on the battlefield. It belongs with Frazier's and Bahr's novels among the year's most unexpectedly welcome surprises.
Another was In the Memory of the Forest, a fine first novel by the late newspaper correspondent Charles T. Powers, about Poland in the wake of Communism's demise and a murder in a rural village. The solution of the murder discloses the painfully lingering presences of divisive old fears and superstitions.
Joseph Skibell's A Blessing on the Moon effectively uses magical realism in a haunting tale of a Polish Jew killed during the Second World War by German soldiers, whose body rises from a mass grave and travels through the ongoing carnage toward "the World to Come." A most unusual memorial to the many million dead, it's a thoroughly convincing fantasy.
Nora Okja Keller's Comfort Woman skillfully employs two narrators, a Korean-American girl growing up in Hawaii and her traumatized mother, to tell the harsh yet dreamy and lyrical tale of a naive village girl made into a "comfort woman" (prostitute) in wartime Japan's "recreation camps," the vengeance she later exacts, and the complex legacy thus passed on to her daughter. A deeply felt and beautifully constructed first novel.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is packed with fascinating information about the life of Chiyo, a Japanese girl sold into slavery who later becomes a pampered, prosperous geisha—but its heroine is so gentle and passive (albeit credibly so) that the novel is virtually devoid of tension. Its most dramatic pages are those that describe Chiyo's victimization by her rival Hatsumomo, a femme fatale who might have dropped in out of one of Sax Rohmer's overheated melodramas. She shakes the novel, if only intermittently, into furious life.
Patricia Chao's debut, Monkey King, vividly explores the complicated self-healing undertaken by Sally Wang, a Chinese-American woman whose fulfilling new life in New York City is troubled by memories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her late father. This is a remarkably fair-minded novel, grimly unsparing in its portrayal of family horrors and both perceptive and forgiving toward disoriented immigrants who seek "control" over their lives in the only ways they know.
A more benign look at the immigrant experience is offered in The Chin Kiss King, Ana Veciana-Suarez's infectiously warmhearted tale of a Cuban-American family threatened and unified by the birth of a seriously handicapped baby. The characters of the baby's courageous mother Maribel, her firebrand mother Adela, and distracted grandmother Cuca form the solid center of a life-affirming novel that's far less sentimental and romantic than are its endearingly crazy women. A real charmer.
Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates movingly relates the coming-of-age of Aryeh Alexander, a rabbi's son growing up in Windsor, Ontario, in the 1960s. Aryeh's gradual understanding of the extremity of his father's (and others') sufferings during the Holocaust and acceptance of his homosexuality help him to see how one may "retreat" from "reality" in order to better comprehend it. Aryeh's own accommodation to the mysteries of God's creation brings this freshly imagined and admirably intelligent novel to an inconclusive ending that nevertheless feels like an honestly earned victory.
No such satisfaction awaits Elizabeth Taube, the beleaguered protagonist (she'd laugh if you called her a heroine) of Amy Bloom's Love Invents Us, an episodic novel (presumably developed from stories in her first book, Come to Me) which tracks Elizabeth's unhappy sexual adventures, beginning with the elderly furrier who gently abuses her and ending, many men later, with her realization that "I've been alone my whole life." Though Elizabeth's confusion and pain are very feelingly rendered, one finishes this rather bitter novel not quite sure what it was all about or why we should care about its morose main character.
The episodic nature of Julie Hecht's Do the Windows Open? is the great strength of a sequence of crisp stories that subtly reveal the inner emotional world of their common narrator: a fortyish woman photographer who accepts the staleness of her marriage and the fact of her childlessness, while observing with a hilariously rendered sardonic ennui the exasperating plenitude of others' lives in her several (New York and Nantucket) environments. A very funny book with a very convincing serious undertone.
The same is true of the exhilarating stories (many won literary prizes) in Sharon Solwitz's debut collection Blood and Milk, which celebrates in wry, combative colloquial voices the getting and spending and enduring of domestic and marital minutiae and crises. "Mercy" and "Polio" are especially compelling, but there isn't a dud—or an experience to which any reader can remain indifferent—in this accomplished book.
In Horace Afoot, Frederick Reuss contrives to interest readers in a character (who has adopted the name of the Roman poet mentioned in the title) stubbornly at odds with his hometown (Oblivion, somewhere in the midwest) and indeed the present century. Horace's somewhat pedantic broadsides against American materialism and shallowness are, fortunately, modified by a simple but serviceable plot that takes him outside his own psyche and into hesitant, and finally committed involvement with others. It's as if the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces had actually met people he liked.
The year's most entertaining first novel—and one that made my shortlist of the five best novels, period—was The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta's follow-up to his delightful story collection Bad Haircut, likewise set in suburban New Jersey and focused on amiable young layabouts unwilling to grow up. Footloose Dave Raymond's musical escapism playing with a local "wedding band," resigned surrender to his longtime girlfriend, and precipitous fall into love with another woman just as marriage rears its ugly head are the stuff comic dreams are made of—and the beguiling matter of a jaunty novel that's as knowledgeable about prolonged adolescence as it is about "classic" rock 'n' roll. Irresistible.
In a different vein, Ann Harleman's Bitter Lake turns what might have been conventional domestic melodrama into an engrossing portrait of relations among a middle-aged woman (Judith Hutchins) whose husband has left her, her embittered teenaged daughter (Lil), and the fugitive husband and father (Gort), whose flight from the exigencies and constrictions of family becomes the paradoxical source of this excellent novel's unusual and affecting resolution.
In Willy Slater's Lane, first-novelist Mitch Wieland draws a vivid contrast between sixtyish Erban Kern and his choleric older brother Harlan, with whom he has lived all his life—and convincingly portrays Erban's gradual separation from Harlan and emergence into the fuller life he'd believed would always be denied him. It's a book whose grip on the reader grows stronger as its plainspoken, moving story proceeds. And Tom Kelly's Payback evokes memories of 1930s movies with its tightly plotted, suspenseful account of two brothers, Paddy and Billy Adare, who go their separate ways (toward crime and respectability, respectfully) in a vigorously realized New York world of construction workers, Mafiosi, and dedicated lawmen. It's a familiar story nicely reimagined in contemporary terms.
Suzanne Berne's novel A Crime in the Neighborhood expertly plaits together the 1972 murder of a small boy in a Washington suburb, narrator Marsha Eberhard's confusion as her family recovers from her father's abandonment of them, and the country's dawning realization of what the Watergate burglary meant—in a fascinating novel that memorably analyzes "crimes" that plague us and how we survive and learn from them.
The "criminals" are, in a way, the heroes of Bruce Duffy's long-awaited second novel (following his spectacular 1987 debut The World as I Found It), Last Comes the Egg. They include teenaged Frank Dougherty, his sociopathic buddy Alvy, and a black kid named Sheppy on an odyssey southward from their Maryland hometown in 1960, the year Frank's mother died—surviving an adventure remembered twenty-six years later and offered up as a kind of tribute to the passionate, perhaps slightly crazy Julie Dougherty. This journey, which echoes Huck Finn's progress, is a (rather overargued) object lesson in racial understanding, and a funny, entertaining, and endearing expression of its bright young narrator's uneasy assumption of maturity.
Pete Hamill's Snow in August knowingly traces the moral growth of eleven-year-old Michael Devlin in a postwar (1947) Brooklyn whose ethnic insularity is ruffled by both Jackie Robinson's unforeseen celebrity and acts of sickening antisemitic violence from which its young hero learns he cannot hold himself apart. Allen Hoffman's Big League Dreams, a winning successor to his earlier Small Worlds, continues an absorbing chronicle of the lives of Polish Jews transplanted to America. Here, the year is 1920 and the yearnings of Hoffman's characters to preserve their cultural heritage are severely (and comically) tested by moral crises related to the government's treatment of Native Americans and the temptations of major league baseball. Admirably constructed and teeming with life, this is a very ingratiating and possibly very important work in progress.
The Mercy Seat by Rilla Askew is a superbly dramatic (and offbeat) family chronicle set in the Oklahoma Territory in the 1880s and narrated by Mattie Lodi, a spirited girl forced into premature womanhood by the death of her mother during their family's westward traveling. A long-simmering conflict between her peace-loving father (a superlative gunsmith, ironically) and his dishonest brother makes for a marvelous recasting of the Cain and Abel story, and a painstaking, painful depiction of Mattie's beleaguered ingenuity and survival skills.
The three novellas in Rick Bass's collection The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness aren't especially dramatic, but explore with seductive precision the varied worlds of a Texas ranch stubbornly maintained by the woman who loves it (the title story), Mississippi oil country ("Where the Sea Used to Be"), and the Yukon Territory decades ago (in the wonderful "The Myths of Bears") as home to a taciturn "Trapper" so attuned to his environment's rhythms that his human presence is effectively subsumed into, and becomes part of its untamed animal life. Beautiful writing, of a visionary intensity shared probably only by Bass's contemporary Cormac McCarthy.
Small-town America is skillfully evoked and satirized in National Public Radio maven Garrison Keillor's delightful Wobegon Boy, an amiably loose portrayal of Minnesotan John Tollefson's escape from the provinces to a nondescript New York State campus, a maddening job at (what else?) a public radio station, and an agreeably frustrating affair with a Modern Woman who won't take any guff from him. It really is a shame Sinclair Lewis never lived to meet Garrison Keillor.
Similar pleasures await the reader of John Dufresne's bittersweet second novel, Love Warps the Mind a Little, a beguiling portrait of a mediocre youngish writer who's both shattered and, eventually, matured by the agonizing death of the courageous, infuriating woman he can't help loving.
The crises are more manageable—as well as hilariously interconnected—in Straight Man, Richard Russo's ingratiating anatomy of exurban (Pennsylvania) campus life, held together (sort of) by principal character Hank Devereaux Jr.: a middle-aged one-book author and tenured professor buffeted among academic confrontations and scandals (including—I'm not making this up—the murder of a goose), half-serious sexual fantasies, and unresolved feelings toward his variously deranged relatives. It's a terrific comic novel, powered by narrator Hank's wry, irreverent, appealingly world-weary voice.
Laurence Naumoff's A Plan for Women works frustratingly less well, mainly because its deliciously unconventional portrayal of a loving couple who bring a little too much uncomfortable baggage to their tenuous union is interrupted by far too many authorial asides about the sexes' inevitable (and, when you come right down to it, irrelevant) incompatibility. Naumoff knows the territory all right, but he places a few too many roadblocks and potholes along the reader's path to it.
A powerful sense of the mysterious natures of ordinary lives permeates the stories in Charles Baxter's strong fourth collection, Believers. His characters are midwesterners stunned (in "Time Exposure" and "Kiss Away") by the closeness of violent or bizarre forces to their innocent routines or, conversely, soothed and empowered (especially in "The Cures of Love") by affirmative images beckoning from earlier times and other places. And the title novella, in which an American priest's experience of prewar Europe first distorts, then deepens his understanding of how good and evil are mingled together in the world, is a milestone in Baxter's work thus far.
Similar depth distinguishes the seven long stories in Deborah Eisenberg's All around Atlantis. These are lavishly described accounts of rites of passage whose most memorable participants are children or adolescents adapting themselves to the compromises adulthood seems to require ("Mermaids," "The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor") and deracinated tourists who discover in alien surroundings their own vulnerability and unresolved strangeness ("Tlaloc's Paradise," "Someone to Talk To"). Demanding and thoughtful fiction, very much worth the close attention it asks of the reader.
The sophisticated characters who populate Allan Gurganus's vivid second novel, Plays Well with Others, embody both the colorful flair of gay artistic culture in the 1980s and the defiant spirit of victims of the plague (AIDS) that relentlessly strikes down New York City's brightest and most beautiful. The novel's effectiveness is vitiated by Firbankian campiness, but no praise is too high for the astonishing wit and vigor of its elegiac colloquial prose. The same cannot be said for The Farewell Symphony, Edmund White's heartfelt but overlong conclusion to the autobiographical trilogy he began with A Boy's Own Story. As much memorial to those who died of AIDS as it is character study of its fascinating and eloquent protagonist, it's a good novel which, had it been less explanatory and argumentative, might well be a far better one.
Francisco Goldman's The Ordinary Seaman ingeniously creates arresting drama from its literally static premise: a ship manned by Central American refugees moored in Brooklyn harbor. Its characters' tentative, frustrated efforts to assimilate into a world that won't permit them to come ashore comprise a provocative allegory of the immigrant experience of America.
Starling Lawrence's Montenegro creates a rich character in Auberon Harwell, an Englishman whose business trip to the Balkans (early in the century) is subverted by his attachment to an endangered, courageous people—and a consequent change of heart that makes him, in spite of himself, a man of principle. A rather different, and enormously appealing, adventure absorbs the eponymous twelve-year-old heroine of Brian Hall's Saskiad. Bookish and imaginative Saskla ventures beyond the upstate New York commune where she lives with her mother, inspired by an exotic new schoolmate and also the reappearance of her vagrant father, a self-styled "eco-warrior" whose fantasies nicely counterpoint Saskia's dreams of inhabiting the far-off lands and emulating the epic heroes she compulsively reads about. It's an utterly original portrayal of adolescence, and one of the year's most likable novels.
Sheer creative ingenuity distinguishes new novels from two very underrated American writers. The versatile Carol Dawson spins in Meeting the Minotaur a disarmingly bizarre yarn about young Texan Taylor Troys's adventures as a cat burglar and industrial spy as he seeks to make peace with his absentee father by undertaking a dangerous journey—into the subterranean bowels of a Japanese conglomerate's maze-like office building. The novel is both a comic reworking of classical myth and a laid-back, enjoyably sprawling coming-of-age tale. Harvey Jacobs's American Goliath retells the story of the Cardiff Giant, a marvelous hoax perpetrated on the spectacle-hungry populace in post-Civil War America. P. T. Barnum, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and other historical figures join such splendid invented ones as wiseacre journalist Barnaby Rack and criminally inclined cigarmaker George Hull in an exuberant carnival of Americana flavored with authoritative period detail and slang. It's hard to believe this hasn't been recognized as one of the year's best novels.
If veteran Harvey Jacobs remains underappreciated, there was ample critical attention paid to Kurt Vonnegut's "novel" Timequake, a fitfully amusing piece of whimsy purporting to describe life during a rerun of the 1990s occasioned by "a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum," but instead offering an autobiographical patchwork coyly explaining why this was all Vonnegut could make out of that promising premise. Timequake has its shaggy charms, but it's an annoyingly self-indulgent farrago in which the old familiar jokes are better than the new ones.
Other so-so books from big-name writers included John Hawkes's oddball tale of a suggestible girl's dreamlike romantic and sexual maturing (An Irish Eye); Joyce Carol Oates's disturbingly intense but hasn't-she-written-this-book-already? portrayal of a believably troubled girl bedeviled by cartoonishly violent men (Man Crazy); Denis Johnson's also over-familiar "California Gothic" (Already Dead) noir-derived tale of drug-and sex-addicts in surreal conflict, and—1997's damnedest surprise—The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer's flat retelling of the life and martyrdom of Jesus as told by h/Himself. Except for its protagonist's Mailer-like fascination with the eternal struggle between God and the Devil, it's an altogether conventional, seemingly pointless book, which one reads with mounting confusion, wondering why in hell it was written and published.
Another career iconoclast, Robert Coover, fared better with his very amusing and highly sexed postmodernist retelling of a familiar fairytale in Briar Rose, a lovely old story to which he adds some hair-raising metafictional speculations about the limitations and very nature of storytelling.
Paul Theroux (whose cosmopolitan and darkly humorous Collected Stories also appeared in 1997) produced in Kowloon Tong one of his better (if only too characteristic) novels in some time: a portrayal of the English in Hong Kong on the eve of its reunification with China that offers both acute observations on the theme of cultural dislocation and simplistic ethnic characterisations that seem to this reader borderline racist.
Ward Just's Echo House, which analyzes the political and sexual involvements of three generations of a prominent Washington family, exudes a weary, sardonic knowledgeability about exactly what power brokers and office seekers do, and how our institutions are run, that makes it this ex-political correspondent's best novel yet. And Diane Johnson's Le Divorce, a witty tale of a hopeful young American woman's imperfect conquest of Paris, specifically evokes Henry James's Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors and, astonishingly, compares rather favorably with those masterpieces.
Cynthia Ozick was in top form with The Puttermesser Papers, a compound volume including previously published stories about as well as further adventures (extending into the afterlife) of her irresistible ater ego: frazzled bureaucrat, lover of literature, onetime Mayor of New York, and indomitable romantic. Hortense Calisher returned, with an unfortunately sluggish and attenuated tale of a misfit's rehabilitation among Manhattan's homeless (In the Slammer with Carol Smith), and, triumphantly, with her collected Novellas, a dazzling display of verbally rich and intricately interwoven narratives that restores to print such gems as "Tale for the Mirror" and "The Railway Police."
Ann Beattie's My Life, Starring Dara Falcon contrasts at excessive length its subdued narrator with the (eponymous) mercurial sophisticate she admires and abhors, in an otherwise well-plotted story about a woman learning to separate herself from others' claims on her. John Updike's ruminative Toward the End of Time is a disappointment: a vision of future America following a disastrous nuclear war with China that forsakes its interesting premise for a tedious reiteration of the opinions and fantasies of its sexually obsessed sexagenarian protagonist.
Frederick Busch's Girls, on the other hand, is one of this prolific author's best books: the story of a campus security guard whose shouldering of others' burdens makes painfully real to him how dangerous a place the world is, while making him a more sensitive and stronger man. But Peter Matthiessen's sprawling Lost Man's River, part of a long work in progress about familial mysteries, corruption, and murder in Florida's Everglades, is seriously weakened by discursive and hyperbolic authorial intrusions.
Bear and His Daughter collects stories written over a thirty-year period by the increasingly accomplished Robert Stone. These tense, disturbing studies of introverted characters compelled to test their courage and decency while unmanned by their various addictions are among the most powerful fiction of our time ("Helping" and "Absence of Mercy" are particularly noteworthy). The three novellas of Philip Caputo's Exiles are similar: tales of interior conflict that burst into violent confrontation, set in the contrasting locales of suburban Connecticut, an Australian off-island, and the jungles of Vietnam. Caputo's best book yet.
Old master Saul Bellow's novella The Actual is a jeu—another canny portrayal of high-energy Jewish moguls and intellectuals whom society and circumstance ineluctably, amusingly draw together. Louis Auchincloss's The Atonement contains twelve smoothly polished stories of social and moral contretemps among the wealthy and privileged that make the romance of old money seem enchantingly new. And The Collected Stories of Bernard Malamud ought to be an occasion for national rejoicing: fifty-five joyously colloquial, surreally comic stories of Jewry in extremis, including previously uncollected early work along with such familiar wonders as "Idiots First," "The Jewbird," and "The Magic Barrel." A treasure house of fiction.
Finally, three novels that should be remembered when lists of the decade's best are compiled. American Pastoral is Philip Roth's uncharacteristically plaintive story (told, and in part imagined, by his recurring character novelist Nathan Zuckerman) of a life well lived—and, by extension, a prosperous and complacent society—rent irrationally asunder. The downward path to rueful wisdom trod by Zuckerman's old schoolmate Seymour "Swede" Levov, a paragon of athletic prowess and high lifetime achievement, whose beloved daughter becomes a terrorist and murderer, is traced with remorseless clarity and subtle empathy in a powerful accusatory narrative that rests on the unanswerable question "What the hell is wrong with doing things right?" The novelist capable of both Portnoy's Complaint and this masterpiece is unquestionably one of our best.
So, of course, is Thomas Pynchon, who emerged from another of his lengthy literary hibernations with the longpromised Mason & Dixon. A very imitation of the eighteenth-century novel, this wonderful historical romance tells the story of the British astronomer-surveyors whose demarcation of the line between America's northern and southern states is only one of their astonishing intellectual adventures in various climes and among a bevy of "enlightened" souls whom Pynchon presents (often with the help of enjoyably deranged anachronisms) as seekers, in their different ways, after knowledge, and as freedom. As always, Pynchon's polymathic fluency is brilliantly displayed, especially in a vivid account of his protagonists' sojourn in South Africa to observe the transit of Venus—an astral phenomenon scarcely more remarkable than the spectacle of this one-of-a-kind book itself: the work of a great writer at the height of his powers.
Mason & Dixon's only rival as the novel of the year was Don De Lillo's Underworld, a dazzlingly rich portrait of cold war America that begins with Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run in 1951, then exfoliated to embrace the creation of the atomic bomb and the subsequent shock waves that transformed our culture over the following forty years. Protagonist Nick Shay, a specialist in "waste management" and another of De Lillo's watchful solitaries, is the fulcrum for a complex envisioning of recent history that patiently, conclusively demonstrates how people are all simultaneously divided from one another and united by the forces ever at work around and beneath them, preparing a mass destiny in which all will unknowingly share.
Both apocalyptic and oddly reassuring (it stresses human interconnectedness in a way that's new in De Lillo's fiction), Underworld is a generously detailed panoramic synthesis of America approaching the century's, and perhaps our species's, end. It defies summary, but few readers who make their way through its densely dramatic opening pages will be able to resist the dark-hued millennial spell it casts. It's a novel that belongs on the same shelf with Mason & Dixon, and I can't imagine higher praise than that.