“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.

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