Best Book of 2016 – Debuts!
As usual, the survey of a year’s fiction debuts is nerve-wracking. Here are the luckiest of the lucky, the few out of the hopeful many who dreamed of achieving the damn-near impossible and getting their debut fiction through the gauntlet of agents, editors, publishers, and bookstore buyers and into the hands of potential readers – and after all, what more telling index of a genre’s weakness can there be than this crop of fortunates being talentless, entitled popinjays? Every year I dread that the freshman class – whose work I’ll be reading, for good or ill, for decades – will show no promise at all, and every year I get to breathe easy in the presence of some genuine talent. 2016 was no exception, and these were the best of the debuts I read:
10. A Stairway to the Sea by Jeff Newberry (Pulpwood Press) – Florida’s Gulf Coast comes alive in this thoughtful and incredibly readable novel centering on Deputy Sheriff Justin Everson, caught in a haze of exhaustion and grief while trying to unravel the death of dubious local Iraq War veteran. Florida has a knack of producing writers who excel at the capturing the atmospherics of the place, and now a major new voice is added to those ranks.
9. The Longest Night by Andria Williams (Random House) – This amazingly assured debut is set in 1959, when a married couple is posted to a small town where the husband, Paul, is tasked with overseeing one of the country’s first nuclear reactors. He discovers a major problem and a major cover-up, and the crisis deepen the problems in his marriage to Nat, who develops secrets of her own. Williams presents it all with the clear, whittled prose of a thirty-year veteran.
8. The Expatriates by Janice Yee (Viking) – Yee’s tremendously involving debut plays expertly on the variations in the lives of its three central characters: a twenty-something Columbia grad, a tragedy-shaken mother of three, and a wealthy woman yearning to have a child. The book’s plot-lines occasionally waver (and needless to say, since this is a work of fiction written in the 21st century, the ending is flubbed almost to the point of cancellation), but the character-insights on almost every page are haltingly good.
7. Shaker by Scott Frank (Knopf) – Frank’s irresistible main character, professional leg-breaker Roy Cooper, is fresh from committing one contract killing when he stumbles upon what may very well be another and gets caught up in a very public news story before he can extricate himself. The novel that unfolds from this pleasingly contorted premise is by turns wry and surprisingly moving.
6. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Graywolf Press) – If any debut novel in 2016 edged close to the status of “critical darling,” it was this tiny thing by Max Porter, the story of a grief-stricken father and his two sons who are visited by the talismanic Crow straight out of the poetry of Ted Hughes. Critics rhapsodized over Porter’s lyrical, brutal prose, and reader word-of-mouth was uniformly enthusiastic – and in this case, the renown is completely warranted: this is a novel of grief fit to stand beside Madison Smart Bell’s The Year of Silence.
5. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa (Lee Boudreaux Books) – This book – the unlikely narrative of many lives intersecting at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1990 – was likewise a critical success, and likewise for good reason: Sunil Yapa takes the most seemingly off-the-wall elements and somehow forges them into a very effective novel.
4. Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter (Knopf) – Whatever ground this workplace-novel loses by being just a bit easy and derivative, it more than regains by being so pointedly ferocious; it’s the story of a woman named Jen who takes a job at a feminist nonprofit group and quickly finds herself mired in a soup of lunatic office politics Jessica Winter captures with gleeful malice. In this admittedly otherwise fairly somber list, this book will make you laugh – and nod in recognition.
3. The Nix by Nathan Hill (Knopf) – Hill’s blazingly talented big debut novel presents its main character, listless college professor and failed writer Samuel Andreson-Anderson, with an unlooked-for crisis: his estranged mother has made the headlines by assaulting an odious Presidential candidate, bringing her past into his present in hilarious and moving ways. You can read my full review here.
2. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Riverhead Books) – By rights, the fragmented, surrealistic antics of this slim debut, with its hallucinatory prose and showy linguistic pyrotechnics, should have annoyed me enough to warrant its inclusion on a very different list, but the sheer writing genius on display here is as impossible to deny as it is impossible to summarize. It almost immediately won me over, and it guaranteed that I’ll be reading this author as long as it pleases her to write books.
1. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Cothron (Seven Stories Press) – There are many conspicuous qualities in this, the best fiction debut of 2016 – there’s tense, beautifully-controlled prose, there are excellently-drawn characters, there are evocative settings – but the most gripping quality of Kia Cothron’s big debut novel is its power. This is the story of two pairs of brothers, one white and one black, growing to manhood in the South in the second half of the 20th century, and from the first page, the unstoppable power of the forces that will bring these men together rumbles under every plot twist. The result is an incredible and often astonishing reading experience.
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