Sunday, December 28, 2003

Best In fiction
By David Abrams
Long Island Press

It was a great year for fiction.

It was also a good year for truth-is-stranger-than-fiction. Ten months ago, if you'd told me that Stephen King would be hobbling up to the podium to receive a Distinguished Contribution To American Letters medal at the National Book Awards in November, I'd probably have said, "Yeah, right. Next, you're gonna tell me aliens have landed and unleashed a killer flu virus on our unsuspecting population."

But there was Steverino in his tuxedo standing at the microphone, chastising literary snobs for not reading more chunky mass-market paperback novels by his pals Koontz, Clancy and Grisham. "What do you think?" King scolded. "You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"

A day later, he came down with the flu. Coincidence? I think not.

King's cultural pot-stirring was trivial compared to the Paris Hilton sex video, but at least it got literature in the headlines for a couple of hours. It also got me thinking about the books I read this year—only one of them by a King-approved author (Peter Straub). Still, it's a big world out there, and I believe there's room for both Camus and Clancy.

Here, then, is a list of the best novels of the year. By the way, each of these novels can be redeemed for 10 brownie points.

1. The Clearing, Tim Gautreaux

This is the kind of novel that so completely transports us to another time, another place—the cypress forests of Louisiana in the 1920s—that we emerge on the other side of the story blinking and not quite sure of our surroundings. The story and characters—a man tries to redeem his brother from a swamp of corruption and finds himself getting pulled into the mire as well—will be familiar to readers of Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Faulkner and countless others who've brought us tales of sibling salvation. In Gautreaux's hands, however, the plot transforms into a lyric, epic experience, and we feel as if we're hearing it for the first time. The best book of 2003.

2. The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers

My year began with a symphonic cymbal crash when I cracked open Powers' massive portrait of one family coming of age in the mid-20th century. The patriarch is a German Jewish refugee physicist, the mother is a young black woman studying classical music; together, they raise prodigal children and teach them the ways of the world. Using classical music as a springboard, Powers surgically dissects America's race relations.

3. Wonder When You'll Miss Me, Amanda Davis

Perhaps the saddest literary news story of the year came when 32-year-old Davis died in a plane crash while on tour promoting her first novel, a tender story about Faith Duckle, an overweight teenager who's assaulted during her school's Homecoming game then later runs away to join the circus. Just as the Big Top transforms Faith into a girl with a sequin-speckled future, Davis turns her descriptions of circus life into parables about how it's possible to find beauty, even among the sawdust and elephant dung.

4. The Mammoth Cheese, Sheri Holman

Who knew that the story of a 1,200-pound wheel of cheese could be such a funny, moving and accurate portrait of American life? In order to revitalize their local economy, the residents of a small Virginia town decide to deliver a giant hunk of cheese to the President. As she demonstrated in her previous novels, Holman has a keen eye for detail, and even though she's painting on a big canvas here, she never loses sight of the value of the smallest brushstroke.

5. Old School, Tobias Wolff

After a distinguished career in short fiction and memoir, Wolff finally delivers his first novel. The wait was well worth it. Thinly-veiled autobiography, Old School (no relation to the movie) may well be the author's crowning achievement. In his story of a boy's life at prep school, Wolff gently instructs us on how to be better writers and better people.

6. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger's debut novel bends a traditional love story into new and unusual shapes. Henry is a time-traveler who drops in and out of various moments in his life; Clare leads a chronologically-normal life. The two of them intersect, in "real time," when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28. Their relationship turns as sweet and tragic as an Emily Dickinson poem.

7. In Open Spaces, Russell Rowland

I'm cheating a bit here, since Rowland's book was published in 2002, but I didn't discover it until this year. Covering one Montana family's story across a broad swath of years, this novel is filled with smothered dreams and unrequited longing. It's a big, potentially messy plot, but Rowland never lets the reins slip from his hands.

8. Slow Monkeys and Other Stories, Jim Nichols

Another cheat with a 2002 book, but I'm willing to bet Nichols' collection had an even smaller audience than Rowland's novel. Nichols' characters inhabit a world of hard reality—the losers, loners and loafers you might find in trailer parks, soup kitchens or even caves. But these people aren't just bums and dregs—they're characters the author invests with compassion, even love. Nichols writes about the sweat-drenched, beard-stubbled, stinking mass of humanity and manages to find a glimmer of beauty in even the worst situations.

9. "Train Dreams" (from the 2003 O. Henry Prize Stories collection), Denis Johnson

The end of every year always brings a small battalion of "Best of" anthologies, and while most of the stories have the too-polished sheen of New Yorker fiction, it's possible to find gems in these collections. This year, Johnson's 52-page novella, "Train Dreams," sparkled like a miniature masterpiece. Grainier, a laborer on a railroad crew in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s, suffers Job-like catastrophes as he tries to eke a living from the unforgiving land. The story unspools with slow, deliberate precision, climaxing with a devastating sentence that tells us what we've just read is really about the loss of an era: "And that time was gone forever."

10. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer

These eight short stories arrived on the already-crowded short fiction market with all the fiery energy of Flannery O'Connor on a good day. Nothing is wasted in a ZZ Packer story; every word relentlessly moves the reader forward to climaxes that pierce our hearts.

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