A few things I loved this year:
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Her humor can remind you of Ring Lardner; her fondness for Southern grotesques can remind you of Flannery O’Connor; and her mordant reflections on the difficulty of love can remind you of Proust – but really, there was nobody like her, ever. More than fifty years old, this short novel is the liveliest thing I’ve read in years. If the world of MFA programs moved O’Connor off the pedestal and replaced her with McCullers, it would be a good thing for the future of American literature.
It might seem superfluous to add another word of praise for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, except that it’s impossible to praise her enough for how well she listens. Who else, for example, pays such close attention to the way we never, ever finish our sentences? “‘Man, why you gotta be all…I just ahks a question, that’s all, and you gotta be all…’ Here Levi provided an inconclusive mime that gave no idea of the missing word.”
Fade to Blonde, by Max Phillips, is a brilliant homage to (and parody of) the noir tradition. Raymond Chandler said something to the effect that his Philip Marlowe novels were primarily experiments with language; you could say something similar about Fade To Blonde. I’ve never met Philips, but, having heard a rumor that he’s not writing anymore, I want to address him directly: You are a fantastic writer, man! Keep going!