Recommending novels is a fool’s errand and giving them as gifts is greater folly yet. To this day, my sister assails me for suggesting Norman Rush’s Mating in 1996, and I’ve altogether stopped proposing any of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, Henry James’ The Spoils of Poynton or Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard because too many friends have whined and complained when they should have gotten down on their knees in thanks. In fact, after years of being in various book groups and classrooms, I’ve found that the better the book, the more vociferous its detractors. Unlike The Kite Runner, no great literary book pleases everyone.
On the other hand, as a reader and writer of novels, I can’t think of anything I’d love better than a stack of books, a week’s or month’s supply of good reading. Who cares if they aren’t all perfect? Their flaws and challenges are often as compelling and revealing and fun to talk about as their pleasures. Herewith, then, is my little stack of big, late-year books, flaws and all.
Cormac McCarthy is our great aestheticizer of manly competence, and of violence. The Road is a scraggy postapocalypse melodrama set in America a decade after a great earth-killing conflagration has destroyed all organic life, and a few hapless survivors wander the ashen world searching for food and preying on each other.
As ever with McCarthy, some images of violence are so dire, they glitter like toxic jewels set into the narrative as if for us to admire the dark range of this writer’s imagination. There’s “a charred, human infant gutted and blackening on the spit” and a cellar full of people waiting to be eaten, one already with his legs removed and hips cauterized. Meanwhile, “the good guys,” an unnamed father and his sweet 10-year-old son, traverse this world heading south for warmer weather. The father is a master of masculine capability; he fights off predators, finds morel mushrooms in a lifeless landscape, locates forgotten cisterns and hidden bomb shelters. He can fashion the necessary stove valve, whittle a bullet, repair a wheel. “He pulled the bolt and bored out the collect with a hand drill and resleeved it with a section of pipe .?.?.”
While as visionary and brutal as the Torah, The Road is also an ultimate Scout adventure story, a female-free dream world of idealized father-son bonding. (The mother of this small family chose suicide rather than face certain rape and murder.) “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like,” she told her husband when announcing her decision. “I am done with my own whorish heart.”
It is hard to say which is less believable, the mother’s abandonment of her son or her use of tawdry language to explain it. No surprise, then, that the only other woman who speaks in the book is a kind of Road Warrior madonna who intones biblical prophecy. (“The breath of God is his breath yet. Though it pass from man to man [sic!] through all time.”) Despite all this, The Road is a compulsive read, and I was often deep in its thrall — that’s my whorish heart.
Alice McDermott’s quietly ambitious and lovely new novel, After This, addresses the subtler, more mundane struggles of average, well-meaning people trying to be decent — that is, doing their best to love disappointing family members or irritating friends. McDermott is often cited for her lush, dense prose, and appropriately so, but it is her structures that dazzle me. After This is a family portrait with a curious, episodic composition. It’s as if the author had a panoramic vision of the Keanes, an Irish Catholic family on Long Island, and she homes in on various formative events in their history; the windy day Mary Keane met her husband; her youngest daughter’s eventful birth, the night a family friend broke down on a public bus. With each incident, as McDermott employs the short story’s standard element — the epiphany — for novelistic purposes, an unhurried accumulation of precise detail coalesces into an unexpected charge of insight and poignancy.
The novel is also as idea-based as it is character driven; it is about the changing church, the changing family, loving the unlovable, but most of all, it is deeply, quietly antiwar. The Keanes are a family that bears the personal damage from our country’s military engagements — a father wounded in World War II, a son killed in Vietnam. Reading this book, one wonders how families survive such loss, and how we as a country abide sending our sons and brothers off to senseless death.
In The Lay of the Land, the third installment of his trilogy featuring the former sportswriter turned real estate agent Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford mulls over mortality and marriage. Now 54 years old, Bascombe still sells homes along the Jersey shore. His second wife for some underexplained reason has left him for her mildly deranged first husband. Frank has since started treatment for prostate cancer, and is anticipating Thanksgiving with his “has-bian” (ex-lesbian) daughter and estranged, nerdy son. For days before the holiday, Frank drives hither and yon, meets with old friends and his Tibetan Buddhist/Republican real estate partner; pays a “sponsorial” visit to a possible former lover, sees his ex-wife, who suggests they get back together. He shows a house, he philosophizes about a vague concept called “the Permanent Period,” and catalogs virtually every billboard, tree and holiday activity in his path.
Ford is consistently funny and brilliant about later-in-life marriage, aging and real estate. The prose intermittently swells as if approaching a moment of insight or revelation, but the actual waves never quite crest, let alone crash. Will Frank’s wife come back? Will Frank tell his ex-wife he doesn’t want to get back with her? Will he talk with his daughter about her creepy boyfriend or interact with his estranged son? We read on to find out, but every revelation is sidestepped, each emotional exchange is avoided or muted. Instead, we meet and spend page after page with yet more of Frank’s ancillary acquaintances. Even when the runaway wife finally writes, her letter is as muzzy and vague as he is. So despite the author’s humor and intelligence and the sheer beauty of Ford’s sentences, Frank Bascombe’s compulsive, unfocused musings cease accumulating narrative power midway through and the book sags under its own weight. I hung with The Lay of the Land through thick and thicker, and wound up as irritated as I was impressed.
Alice Munro’s latest, The View from Castle Rock, is a hybrid, a curiosity, a book made from the history of her own father’s family, the Laidlaws. Some of the stories are written as nonfiction memoir and some have inexorably metamorphosed into fiction, just as Munro has always fashioned fiction from what she knows and where she comes from. Here, her devoted readers will discover the factual kernels for stories published years ago. Her great uncle’s own written reminiscences were, we see, the basis for one masterpiece, “A Wilderness Station,” in Open Secrets. And Munro’s own brush with cancer seems completely familiar from such stories as “Oranges and Apples” in Friend of My Youth, or “Floating Bridge” in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.
The View from Castle Rock is not Munro’s very best book — the memoirs are a little dry, the book’s structure a little disjunctive. But the title story is as good as anything she’s written, and the mix of memoir and fiction provides a privileged glimpse into both her method and the prima materia of her fiction — it’s a scholar’s (and a fan’s) trove.
When in doubt, go with the Booker finalists. I’d been meaning to get around to Edward St. Aubyn for some time; by waiting, I was able to read his 1998 trilogy (published here in 2003 as Some Hope) and this year’s sequel, Mother’s Milk, back to back, thus subjecting myself to a gratifying immersion into the life of Patrick Melrose, a postaristocrat raised by impoverished upper-class monsters. Heathcliff is a kitten compared to Patrick’s own father, an abuser who congratulates himself for having the sport to rape his five-year-old son. Not surprisingly, Patrick becomes a prodigious addict in young adulthood — St. Aubyn writes in Some Hope of addiction’s complicated maneuverings with such convincing attention, it seems like the dreariest work; sobriety seems so much easier. Indeed, by the start of Mother’s Milk, Patrick has cleaned up enough to become a barrister, marry and have children. But then he’s stuck with the task of not inflicting on others any portion of the rage he carries with him — not easy when his wife has supplanted him in the marriage bed with their second son, and his own mother disinherits him. St. Aubyn gets the broken-down British class system like nobody else writing today; he is the heir to Evelyn Waugh, just as funny and dark, even more heartbreaking.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a technically dazzling event two years ago; its different narratives spanned centuries and genres, yet all was accessible, beautifully structured, brilliantly written and great fun — even if, as we say in writing workshops, one didn’t really care about the characters. This year’s novel, Black Swan Green, proved that Mitchell also can be brilliant and completely sympathetic, in this case with a stuttering, poetry-writing 13-year-old Jason Tyler, who navigates the year he comes into his own while his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Mitchell mines the cusp where childhood starts shading into adulthood and nails the heady unsupervised ramblings of boyhood, the provisional friendships and encounters with strangers, the brutality of teenage bullies, the unexpected-to-miraculous interventions of kind adults, not to mention the glorious-but-terrifying inevitability of a first kiss.
THE ROAD | By CORMAC MCCARTHY | Knopf | 256 pages | $24
AFTER THIS | By ALICE MCDERMOTT | FSG | 288 pages | $24
THE LAY OF THE LAND | By RICHARD FORD | Knopf | 496 pages | $27
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THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK | By ALICE MUNRO | AA Knopf | 368 pages | $26
SOME HOPE | By EDWARD ST. AUBYN | Open City Books | 336 pages | $15
MOTHER’S MILK | By EDWARD ST. AUBYN | Grove Press | 240 pages | $23
BLACK SWAN GREEN | By DAVID MITCHELL | Random House | 304 pages | $24