My favorite book of the year was Fat City, by Leonard Gardner. It’s a novel about a couple of small-time boxers in Stockton, CA in the late ’50s. We follow these fighters as they train in ratty gyms, drink in skid row bars, chase women they don’t love, and work through their hangovers in dusty onion fields. Gardener finds harsh beauty in the bleakness and constructs sad poems out of broken dreams. These men want so much and get so little, and all of a sudden, BAM, you’re sitting there trying to read with tears in your eyes.
Another book I liked was Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly’s dad has jumped bail on a meth charge, and it’s up to Ree to care for her two younger brothers and overmedicated mom. Her quest to track down her father before the bond company snatches the family’s house puts her in conflict with an unsavory branch of her extended clan and leads to some harrowing scrapes. You’ll shiver during Woodrell’s descriptions of the icy Ozarks, flinch at the sudden violence and come to love the indomitable Ree. It’s a simple tale made momentous by Woodrell’s quiet insistence that these poor folks and their hardscrabble lives deserve our respectful attention.
I have to put in an Elmore Leonard, too, The Switch, from 1978. A kidnapping plot spins out of control in a shaky moral landscape where everybody’s guilty of something. I’m a fool for Leonard’s casual yet tightly controlled style and peerless dialogue. There’s also a lot of humor here, as he skewers the ’70s suburban country club lifestyle and makes sure that all the bad guys (and girls) get what’s coming to them.