The Donoghue Interregnum: 2002!
The year is now 2002, when Queen Elizabeth II marked her 50th year on the throne, Washington, DC spent a month being terrorized by a sniper, tornadoes rampaged across America, and Stephen Jay Gould, Elizabeth Longford, Kenneth Koch, and Caroline Knapp all died. Yet somehow, I still felt like reading, and books kept appearing. These were the best of them:
10 This Thing Called Courage by J. G. Hayes – This debut collection of short stories is built around a theme of utter incompatibility: young men being homosexuals in South Boston, at the time of these stories a clannishly working-class Irish section of the city, bound by fierce codes of troglodytic manhood rituals that made Staten Island look like Fire Island. Hayes’s book should therefore be long on hasty character-emigrations or else short on believability, and yet, in story after indelible story, he somehow manages to tell stories of young men living the unlivable, groping out sentimental, damaged, and often miserable lives along the alphabetical streets of the benighted place they can’t help but call home. So far from the 1980s, gay fiction is virtually never this nervy and evocative – it’s an amazing feat of writing from start to finish.
9 The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason – Continuing what will be a pattern for the year’s best fiction, this marvelously atmospheric novel is also a debut, and its plot is a hum-dinger: a Victorian-era piano tuner is sent to the remote reaches of Burma by the British War Office to tune and repair a piano that’s valuable as far more than a musical instrument. Its owner, a mutedly messianic British doctor, is using the instrument to maintain a tenuous piece between rival warlords (and also, we sense immediately, to maintain his slight hold on his own sanity), and Mason’s overwhelmed piano-tuner is thrown headlong into this luscious but dangerous world – and the reader never doubts any of it for a moment.
8 Be My Knife by David Grossman – I’m a big fan of David Grossman’s work, and I was gripped immediately by this novel about a shy bookman’s gradually-deepening epistolary love affair with an enigmatic woman he meets at a class reunion. Grossman has such a distinctive way of telling a story (it’s there even in his devastating nonfiction masterpiece The Yellow Wind), at once so formal and conversational, and that style is so starkly off-kilter with the plot of this novel that it sets off rhetorical shivers on almost every page.
7 The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter – Much as in the case of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire here in 2015, Carter’s debut novel very nearly got pushed off stage by the sheer womping enormity of the paycheck Carter got for it: $4.2 million, back when that was a lot of money (Knopf has a nasty habit of inking these midlist-impoverishing four-martini-lunch contracts for untried authors, and they really ought to knock it off). And just as in the case of Hallberg’s book, the hubbub ran the risk of sidelining a genuinely fantastic novel, in Carter’s case (more so than in Hallberg’s) a richly successful hybrid of high-brow “literary” fiction and low-brow whodunit.
6 Collected Stories by Clare Boylan – I found this volume late in the year, right about at the point when I’d begun to despair that I’d be reading no truly outstanding Irish fiction in 2002 – then along came this book of dysfunctional families, oleaginous parish priests, brooding, tyrannical matriarchs, and egregiously overcooked foodstuffs, to save the day! I’d previously known Boylan only for her novels, and the thing that always bothered me about those novels – their episodic feel – is here transmuted (like the Host!) into a singular strength.
5 The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson – Robinson’s slam-bang book isn’t a post-apocalyptic novel so much as it is a para-apocalyptic novel: it takes as its elegantly simple premise a disaster that very nearly happened: what if, in the fourteenth century, the Black Death had killed not a third of Europe’s population but 99% of it, virtually everybody? From this humble beginning, Robinson crafts a sprawling tale of stark deprivations, weird, spectral phenomena, and unforgettable personalities. This is an author who’s written a shelf of first-rate novels, but I’m always tempted to call this one his best.
4 Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer – As a general rule, stylistic experimentation should never be attempted by short writers, but after just a few pages of this uncannily assured novel, I was willing to, as it were, stretch a point in Foer’s case, even though he’s obnoxious enough to make himself his own protagonist in this story about a young American who travels to Old Europe in search of answers about what the Holocaust did to his family decades earlier. I loved the arrogant trippiness of the prose throughout, and although the bloom has considerably gone off the rose with this particular author, I still re-read this debut.
3 Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan – When I first started this novel, I was certain its post-modern/magical realism affectations would alienate me almost immediately, since those things are almost always crutches for weak writers. But all such games take a distant back seat in these pages to a strange tale told strangely, the story of a convict sent to a 19th-century Tasmanian prison colony who uses his anatomical drawings of fish to fashion an entire language, mute but powerful, of freedom. I regularly admonished readers for gravitating toward novels-as-video-games, and I admonished some customers for misusing this book in that way. But I kept recommending it too.
2 The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru – The main character of this incredibly strong debut is a half-English, half-Indian boy in the tenuous glories of the 1920s Raj, and throughout the complex series of plot reversals Kunzru creates, the boy masters the art of personal shape-shifting, becoming different people and different kinds of people as circumstances dictate. It’s a remarkably sustained work of storytelling.
1 Unless by Carol Shields – This was the last novel from Carol Shields, and it positively shines with her dense, elegantly quotable prose. It’s the story of a happy, successful woman who learns that one of her daughters has dropped out of university and taken up begging on the streets of Toronto, and Shields takes this premise and folds and re-folds it upon itself, creating an unforgettable novel that’s only marginally about marginalization and far more concerned with how we represent ourselves to ourselves.
10 Master of the Senate by Robert Caro – This big book details the epic political career of Lyndon Johnson in the twelve years before he joined the Kennedy presidential ticket. Those years were full of accomplishments, which Caro chronicles with more energy and detail than he’s ever combined before (the years were also full of grotesque personal scandals, in which the faithful chronicler shows markedly less interest); Johnson ruled the US Senate for over a decade, and Caro does an extremely good job of dramatizing the devious twists and curves of deal-making when somebody as smart and morally vacuous as this is involved.
9 In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton – The much-studied Salem Witch Trials are the subject of this terrific book by Mary Beth Norton, who draws intriguing connections between the trauma New Englanders suffered at the hands of attacking Indian bands and the weird manifestations seen in the young girls in 1692. Norton is a very good storyteller, and her account, however familiar its material, is endlessly readable.
8 The Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen – One of the 20th century’s best novelists was also one of its best popular science writers of natural history, and it’s never better demonstrated than in this elegant, incredibly readable book about the ways cranes have been and continue to be studied, memorialized, and even venerated in human cultures around the world. Matthiessen’s natural history writings are always beautifully written but often with intensely frustrating absences at their centers – but not so this one, where cranes in all their ungainly loveliness are front and center the whole time.
7 Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam – This story of the institutional history of McClean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, is an odd one for making such a grippingly good history, since McLean’s was a mental hospital, albeit an incongruously posh one, complete with riding stable, tennis courts, and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted. Beam takes this incongruous subject matter and makes an utterly fascinating study out of it, a study brimming with humanity.
6 A Reader’s Manifesto by B. R. Myers – I smiled and chuckled my way through the original magazine-article version of this scintillating diatribe against the junky boilerplate that’s taken the place of so much genuine worth in modern “literary” fiction, and I smiled and chuckled even more while reading it as a little black book of bile. Myers tears into a pasture full of literary sacred cows, hanging up long samples of their works like stained linen on the line, and the whole thing is such a joyous screed that I kept wishing the book were longer. And re-reading it has only grown sweeter with time, as America and the UK have been utterly engulfed in floodwaters of social-justice-warrior political correctness to such an extent that college professors can not only be fired for calling a book bad or an idea stupid, they can also be incarcerated for it. I still hope for an expanded version of this book, even though I know Myers would have to go to a country with less censorship to publish it – maybe Russia? North Korea?
5 The Letters of Kingsley Amis, edited by Zachary Leader – This big, brawling, drink-sodden, immeasurably literate collection reads like the longest conceivable first act of a typical Kingsley Amis novel, in which readers are given an elaborately, almost torturously detailed tour of their clay-footed hero’s interior landscape – right before he puts his foot squarely in some grubby disaster. But in Leader’s sympathetically judicious curation, the disaster is perpetually postponed, and instead we readers get, for better or worse, Amis in all his glory.
4 The Norsemen in the Viking Age by Eric Christiansen – Our of sheer fascination, I make it a point to try to read every Viking-related book that comes down the pike (just this year polishing off all the extant installments in, for example, Vikings in Space), and there are naturally highlights. This densely-packed and joyously-readable volume is one of those highlights, a smart and witty look behind all the easy stereotypes.
3 Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris – Talk about easy stereotypes! Perhaps no American President this side of George Washington has spawned more such stereotypes than Theodore Roosevelt, and the most memorable thing about Morris’s book (the only biography of Roosevelt since the man’s death that he himself would have liked, mostly for its literary panache) isn’t how thoroughly he overturns those stereotypes as how weirdly he subverts and inverts and perverts them to his own narrative ends. As with so many biographies on these lists, this isn’t the book I’d hand to somebody if they wanted a straight-up book on the man (that would probably be TR: The Last Romantic by H. W. Brands), but it’s the first book I’d hand to somebody who’d already read a standard biography.
2 “A Problem from Hell” by Samantha Power – The problem in the title of Power’s fantastic, moving, searingly angry book is genocide, specifically as it relates to American identity and foreign policy – including America’s dismal track record of preventing or halting genocides in the 20th century, the Century of Genocide. Power is a tough but extremely intelligent guide to one of the most complex political tangles of the modern era, and it’s no surprise her book has ended up on the reading lists of two US presidents (would’ve been three, but one of them wasn’t a big reader…).
1 Christ by Jack Miles – This best nonfiction work of the year is a more concentrated and even more effective continuation of the author’s God: A Biography – this exuberantly readable chunk of Scriptural analysis again verges into meta-analysis, taking the four Gospels as material for a biography. In these pages, Jesus emerges not so much as a man but rather as a symbol of a supernatural being coming of age; it’s at once a very strange and oddly reassuring performance.