Four good reads

Published lists of the best “whatever” (best college, best place to live, best company to work for, best restaurant, etc.) are arbitrary and inexact, and usually meant to provoke conversation (if not to sell newspapers or boost magazine circulation).

So the New York Times succeeded with their “What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?” survey (published May 21) in sparking discussion, although, for flogging circulation, editors might have been better served with “What is the Best American Pop Song of the Last 25 Years?”

The “winner” of the Times “contest” was Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and the runnerups were Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), John Updike’s four Rabbit Angstrom novels and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985).

The Times then listed another 20 novels which received votes from its panel, including Tim O’Brien’s brilliant The Things They Carried (1990), and McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.

Those choosing the list apparently relied on conventional wisdom and literary reputation, which meant novels like Roth’s overrated The Plot Against America (2004) turned up on it (I couldn’t get through 25 pages of Roth’s wooden prose and weakly-researched and implausible narrative). Subbing for Charlie Rose on PBS, Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus and a panel (novelist Thomas Mallon, critic Stephen Metcalfe, and Slate culture editor Meghan O’Rourke) agreed that that the list skewed to panoramic, ambitious books, those that fell into the “Great American Novel” category.

All well and good. But for readers looking for a good read, for novels from the last 25 years that are engaging in style and tone, then I have four alternatives: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, The Paperboy by Pete Dexter, and Ward Just’s Unfinished Season.

As it happens, all four feature protagonists who are newspapermen. Three of the four delve into the life of a small town through the doorway of small town journalism, and the fourth, Unfinished Season, is narrated by a young man whose first job is at a Chicago daily.

These novels transcend genre, however, and can’t be categorized as “newspaper novels.” Not that it really matters, but they have been recognized for their writerly merits: Snow Falling on Cedars won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award; The Shipping News was awarded 1994’s National Book Award; An Unfinished Season was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist; and The Paperboy won 1996 Literary Award, Pen Center USA.

These novelists have chosen small canvases—Guterson’s island north of Puget Sound, Proulx’s Newfoundland harbor town, Dexter’s Florida county seat, and Just’s Chicago North Shore suburban town Quarterday—and the payoff is that their fictions are deeply grounded in place. The scope may narrow geographically, but we are rewarded with brilliantly imagined communities and sharply-drawn characters.

It’s no mystery why novelists are drawn to small town newspapermen: they make marvelous observers, woven tightly into the fabric of their community and yet skeptical of authority and the existing social order. They know the town and the people and yet they retain some professional detachment, some distance. They are curious (it goes with the job); they can probe into the past and ask the awkward question. And they have a way with words.

All of the leading characters in these novels—Ishmael Chambers in Snow Falling, the hulking Quoyle in The Shipping News, the brothers Jack and Ward James in The Paperboy, and Wilson Ravan in An Unfinished Season—are insiders and yet outsiders. They bring us to places we couldn’t otherwise go.

These novels are not outsized, and yet they do not shy from “big” themes (inter-racial love, incest, homophobia, the tensions between fathers and sons, the often harsh tradeoffs in love) much in the way Harper Lee confronted ugly truths about race and justice in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Two other “newspaper novels” of the past 25 years deserve honorable mention on this “good read” list: The Good German (2004) by Joseph Kanon, which follows an American correspondent on his return to bombed-out Berlin in the summer of 1945; and Winston Groom’s Gone the Sun (1998), a quirky book by the author best known for Forrest Gump. Kanon’s ability to create a fully imagined world is amazing: it is hard to believe that he wasn’t there in post-war Berlin, writing from personal memory, so exact and searing are the details of daily life he provides, and so generous is his spirit in portraying the shattered Berliners we encounter.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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