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

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

The social convention that did take a hold on meand which still operates to this day is the school year calendar.Try as I might, I have always started the new year in Septemberand ended it in June. July and August float in free time, as dothe Xmas vacation and Spring break. Maybe that’s where my troublesbegin? Anyway (perhaps my favorite word) I’ve been watchingthe rest of the world end the calendar year 2002 with predictionsand lists and resolutions and recaps and flashbacks and that gotme to thinking about how I missed the boat with my Under-AppreciatedNovels of 2002. So I went back over the books I’ve read sincethe century began and have prepared my list (with the 2002 books)of the Under-Appreciated Fiction of the 21st Century: It’snever 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 andperception is a riveting story and more convincing evidence abouthow good a writer this woman is. Ex-Buddhist-nun Kate Wheeler fashionsa very thoughtful tale around do-gooders and missionaries in LatinAmerica. A novel about that whacko General Manuel Noriega (rememberhim?) by Lawrence Wright somehow should have gotten more attentionespecially since it was a very skillful interior investigation.Charles Baxter is the real deal, and as I have often said, if hewere an East coast writer (as opposed to living in Michigan) hemight be as big a star as Richard Ford. A Feast of Love isBaxter’s homage to Shakespeare. Unfortunately for broader acceptance,Edmund White has been ghettoized as a writer. That has nothing todo with the excellence of The Married Man as a novel or Whiteas a very fine writer. Thomas Beller, being youngish and good lookingand tall and a Manhattan sophisticate who manages to write hereand there for woman’s glossies, still managed to write a finefollow up book to his premier effort Seduction Theory. StanleyCrouch is just brimming with talent and he manages to deliver someof it to his initial work of fiction. British author Phillip Kerrhas published 11 novels and like Elmore Leonard he is pretty muchgood for a novel every year or so. Though my personal favorite isPhilosophical Investigations his last three outings havebeen worthy. The Second Shot has a very unusual angle onthe Kennedy Assassination. Young David Mitchell has published hissecond novel but Ghostwritten still haunts. Good ol’Jim Harrison’s books sell, but here on the East Coast it wouldseem that most people think he writes about serial killers. Hisso-called memoir Off to the Side is also a wonderful pieceof work.

Julian Barnes' unplanned sequel to Talking itOver is a terrific and smart story that grapples (quite well)with the complexity of relationships with a refreshing and abletouch. The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh is a fitting novelto bookend with Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner. A family--againstthe panorama of history of the sub continent from the late 19thcentury through Independence--well told. Who can say why AnthonyGiardina’s novel of a young man’s struggles to overcomethe impact on his own life of his father’s homosexuality didn’tget more attention. This is a terrific novel dealing with a compellingand submerged subject. Ethan Canin’s books are almost guaranteedto get notices as did Carry Me Across the Water. To be briefabout it, that’s not the same as being appreciated (this ofcourse is why it is both useful and amusing for people like GoreVidal and Anthony Lane to periodically review the bestseller listsof yesteryear). Okay, James Ellroy is wacky (to say the least) andthe second in his Underworld USA trilogy was judged by some criticsto unreadable. Well, I read it, so there. And I look forward tothe third volume. Walter Wetherell’s novel on the first morningTV show is both a thoughtful walk down the memory lane of mid-centuryAmerica and a very fine story well told. Betsy Cox’s totaloutput of short stories are real bargains at any price. While DavidMcCullough’s Adams tome grabbed attention awards, and the bookbuying public’s money, Paul Lussier’s send up of the FoundingFathers and the American Revolution made it real, if you know whatI mean. Allan Gurganus’s novellas (whatever a novella is) arenot to be missed. The Practical Heart is worth the priceof admission. But there is more. Terence Blackburn’s KillYour Darlings is the best lampoon of the literary world sinceThe Information. That makes it worth taking note of…CarlHiaasen’s Basket Case brings him back to where I thoughthe was after Strip Tease. Alas, what followed, StormyWeather and Sick Puppy were, well, just okay. Carl’sback on the case with this brilliant poke in the eye, of all things,the newspaper business. And he really means it. I can’t sayI have always been a fan of Vargas Llosa (especially when he ranfor the presidency of Peru) but The Feast of The Goat, adrama that flashes back to the brutal, US-supported dictatorshipof Generallisimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina "the Benefactor,the Father of the New Nation, His Excellency, the Chief," alsocalled 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 muchto do with the big question of rereading as it does with accordingthem some proper place in the big library of life. This is a bigproblem for me, and I suspect, many other readers. Currently theonly books I reread—on an alternating basis— are OneHundred Years of Solitude and Love in Time of Cholera.Some of the books I have mentioned above are probably fitting candidatesfor a second go—when I can get to them. In the mean time Ithink I’ll go read Jay Cantor’s new novel Great Neck.

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