“Under-Appreciated Fiction of the 21st Century” –January 1, 2003

There are many societal conventions that I can’t seem to connect with, the calendar year and most of the holidays contained therein are some of them. Thus they have no celebratory meaning for me. As a white lighter for many years (not quite like Fran Liebowitz, who claims she went out every night for 15 years) the notion of joining well-meaning throngs enjoying some kind of socially liberated New Year’s Eve frolic…well, it was just never my thing. Not to mention my strong suspicion that like other holidays, Dec 31 represents hard-to-pass up revenue potential for many businesses. We know money changes everything. And therein lie the rub and an another digression.

The social convention that did take a hold on me and which still operates to this day is the school year calendar. Try as I might, I have always started the new year in September and ended it in June. July and August float in free time, as do the Xmas vacation and Spring break. Maybe that’s where my troubles begin? Anyway (perhaps my favorite word) I’ve been watching the rest of the world end the calendar year 2002 with predictions and lists and resolutions and recaps and flashbacks and that got me to thinking about how I missed the boat with my Under-Appreciated Novels of 2002. So I went back over the books I’ve read since the century began and have prepared my list (with the 2002 books) of the Under-Appreciated Fiction of the 21st Century: It’s never too early to create another definitive list:

THE MISSING WORLD – Margot Livesey
WHERE MOUNTAINS WALKED – Kate Wheeler
GOD’S FAVORITE – Lawrence Wright
THE FEAST OF LOVE- Charles Baxter
THE MARRIED MAN – Edmund White
THE SLEEP-OVER ARTIST – Thomas Beller
DON’T THE MOON LOOK LONESOME TONIGHT – Stanley Crouch
THE SECOND ANGEL – Phillip Kerr
GHOSTWRITTEN – David Mitchell
THE BEAST GOD FORGOT TO INVENT – Jim Harrison
LOVE ETC. – Julian Barnes
THE GLASS PALACE – Amitav Ghosh
RECENT HISTORY – Anthony Giardina
CARRY ME ACROSS THE WATER – Ethan Canin
THE COLD SIX THOUSAND – James Ellroy
MORNING – WD Wetherell
BARGAINS IN THE REAL WORLD – Elizabeth Cox
LAST REFUGE OF SCOUNDRELS – Paul Lussier
THE PRACTICAL HEART – Allan Gurganus
KILL YOUR DARLINGS – Terence Blackman
THE SHOT – Phillip Kerr
BASKET CASE – Carl Hiaasen
THE FEAST OF GOATS – Mario Vargas Llosa

Margot Livesey’s eerie drama about memory and perception is a riveting story and more convincing evidence about how good a writer this woman is. Ex-Buddhist-nun Kate Wheeler fashions a very thoughtful tale around do-gooders and missionaries in Latin America. A novel about that whacko General Manuel Noriega (remember him?) by Lawrence Wright somehow should have gotten more attention especially since it was a very skillful interior investigation. Charles Baxter is the real deal, and as I have often said, if he were an East coast writer (as opposed to living in Michigan) he might be as big a star as Richard Ford. A Feast of Love is Baxter’s homage to Shakespeare. Unfortunately for broader acceptance, Edmund White has been ghettoized as a writer. That has nothing to do with the excellence of The Married Man as a novel or White as a very fine writer. Thomas Beller, being youngish and good looking and tall and a Manhattan sophisticate who manages to write here and there for woman’s glossies, still managed to write a fine follow up book to his premier effort Seduction Theory. Stanley Crouch is just brimming with talent and he manages to deliver some of it to his initial work of fiction. British author Phillip Kerr has published 11 novels and like Elmore Leonard he is pretty much good for a novel every year or so. Though my personal favorite is Philosophical Investigations his last three outings have been worthy. The Second Shot has a very unusual angle on the Kennedy Assassination. Young David Mitchell has published his second novel but Ghostwritten still haunts. Good ol’ Jim Harrison’s books sell, but here on the East Coast it would seem that most people think he writes about serial killers. His so-called memoir Off to the Side is also a wonderful piece of work.

Julian Barnes’ unplanned sequel to Talking it Over is a terrific and smart story that grapples (quite well) with the complexity of relationships with a refreshing and able touch. The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh is a fitting novel to bookend with Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner. A family–against the panorama of history of the sub continent from the late 19th century through Independence–well told. Who can say why Anthony Giardina’s novel of a young man’s struggles to overcome the impact on his own life of his father’s homosexuality didn’t get more attention. This is a terrific novel dealing with a compelling and submerged subject. Ethan Canin’s books are almost guaranteed to get notices as did Carry Me Across the Water. To be brief about it, that’s not the same as being appreciated (this of course is why it is both useful and amusing for people like Gore Vidal and Anthony Lane to periodically review the bestseller lists of yesteryear). Okay, James Ellroy is wacky (to say the least) and the second in his Underworld USA trilogy was judged by some critics to unreadable. Well, I read it, so there. And I look forward to the third volume. Walter Wetherell’s novel on the first morning TV show is both a thoughtful walk down the memory lane of mid-century America and a very fine story well told. Betsy Cox’s total output of short stories are real bargains at any price. While David McCullough’s Adams tome grabbed attention awards, and the book buying public’s money, Paul Lussier’s send up of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution made it real, if you know what I mean. Allan Gurganus’s novellas (whatever a novella is) are not to be missed. The Practical Heart is worth the price of admission. But there is more. Terence Blackburn’s Kill Your Darlings is the best lampoon of the literary world since The Information. That makes it worth taking note of…Carl Hiaasen’s Basket Case brings him back to where I thought he was after Strip Tease. Alas, what followed, Stormy Weather and Sick Puppy were, well, just okay. Carl’s back on the case with this brilliant poke in the eye, of all things, the newspaper business. And he really means it. I can’t say I have always been a fan of Vargas Llosa (especially when he ran for the presidency of Peru) but The Feast of The Goat, a drama that flashes back to the brutal, US-supported dictatorship of Generallisimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina "the Benefactor, the Father of the New Nation, His Excellency, the Chief," also called by Dominicans, the Goat is as instructive as Martin Amis’ Stalin book about totalitarian total terror. Mi gusta.

Thinking about the books I have read has as much to do with the big question of rereading as it does with according them some proper place in the big library of life. This is a big problem for me, and I suspect, many other readers. Currently the only books I reread—on an alternating basis— are One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in Time of Cholera. Some of the books I have mentioned above are probably fitting candidates for a second go—when I can get to them. In the mean time I think I’ll go read Jay Cantor’s new novel Great Neck.

Posted in a reader's progressBookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.