The Irish writer Kevin Barry is no stranger to literary laurels. His debut novel, City of Bohane (2011), won the European Union Prize for Literature and the IMPAC Dublin Award. His two collections of short stories have been awarded the Rooney Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His second novel, Beatlebone (2015), won the Goldsmiths Prize. Now Barry is out with a wicked little rabbit-punch of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier, that’s on the longlist for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize. From his home in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry spoke by phone recently with The Millions staff writer Bill Morris.
Kevin Barry: Yes, of course, in Washington Square Park. October of 2015 it would have been.
TM: I remember a couple of things about that day, Kevin. First of all, we talked about places, and you said your books come from the reverberations given off by a place, and a specific place is the beginning of all your books. In Night Boat to Tangier, the most prominent place is the Spanish port of Algeciras, where our Irish drug-runner buddies Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are waiting for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Have you been to Algeciras?
KB: I have, I have. The first time I passed through was 1991 en route to Tangier, for largely William Burroughs-related reasons. I would have been 20, 21, and big into the whole Burroughs thing at that age. So I went to Tangier and stayed in the hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch, and all that. Afterwards I had a much stronger memory of Algeciras, which is a gloriously seedy kind of town. Something about the place just seemed to offer itself up to fiction. I’ve been back many times; I go to Spain a lot. I go during the winter here. January and February, the west of Ireland is just a fucken swamp and it’s gray and dark and creative energy goes down. Since the winter of 1999 I’ve been escaping for however long I can afford, for a few days, a few weeks, even a coupla months to the south of Spain, just kind of mooching about these little cities.
TM: What was it about Algeciras, though? The seediness of it? The history? The bones in the ground?
KB: Like with all novelists, it was two things combining. I had these two characters in my mind that kept showing up, Maurice and Charlie, and I knew that having gone to Spain so often for so many years, I wanted to write a Spain book, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it—until I had a blinding flash of inspiration one day: what if I just put those two Cork gangsters down there? So I just sent them down there. It’s weird, you only figure out stuff about a novel after you’ve finished it and start talking about it. It strikes me that the movement of this book is directly the reverse of my earlier novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone. Both of those books started out offering a kind of realism but then very quickly went into fantastical territory. This one is the opposite. It starts out with this highly theatrical premise, but it kind of moves toward realism as we go through the book. You become kinder to your characters as you get older. This is a very different treatment of this story than I would have written 10 years ago. I guess that’s the start of any long story or novel or script or whatever, what you’re doing really, as a writer, is you’re giving yourself a problem and asking yourself if you can fix this problem in 220 pages, or whatever it is. And the problem I gave myself at the start here was, I have to make the reader not just vaguely sympathize with these two guys, but I want to make the reader love them and buy into their world. As desperate and as dangerous and as dark a pair of individuals as they are, I want to see if I can sell their soul and their spirit to the reader.
TM: Another thing I remember from our conversation in Washington Square Park was that I asked you that obligatory, ridiculous question: What are you working on next? And you told me you thought you were going to head back to the fictional City of Bohane. And yet here you wind up in Algeciras, Cork, Cadiz, Malaga, Barcelona, London. Why the detour?
KB: I gave a reading from City of Bohane last year for the first time in eight or nine years. The reading was at the university in Athens, Ga.
TM: My father’s hometown!
KB: It’s a great town. I saw Michael Stipe on the street when I was there. But as I was reading from the novel I thought, wow, there’s great vitality in the language here, but it’s hard to go back. It felt to me very much like a first novel, in terms of the way it was structured. What you have to figure out as a writer often is what projects should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. I had thought vaguely of going back to the City of Bohane, but I thought, no, let’s do other things. Somebody said once that the great enemy of a good idea is another good idea. I get that a lot. Notions pile up for stories and books and I kind of jump around. I’m not ruling out going back to Bohane. I’ve talked to people about developing it for TV, but I don’t know that I’d have access to the same language that I had when I was writing that book. It’s quite a young man’s book [laughs]. As fond as I am of it, you change as a writer.
TM: You mentioned the vitality of the language when you were giving the reading in Athens. Night Boat to Tangier certainly has its own vitality. I’d like to read you a couple of short sentences from the novel and then ask you a question.
TM: A character walks into a bar here: “The barman is as stoned-looking as a fucking koala.” Here’s a woman: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” And here are two lovers: “They fought like drunk gorillas.” So here’s my question: is there a little workshop at the back of Kevin Barry’s writing studio where he has little tiny precision tools that he uses to carve out these crazy fucking similes?
KB: You did manage to pick one of my favorites in the book, and that’s the home-made explosive device. I think I might have given myself an afternoon off after that one [laughs]. If there’s any writer I sometimes go to for that kind of thing, it’s the very late V.S. Pritchett, who comes up with these really unexpected images all the time. I remain a devotee of his. You know that overused expression, being “on the nose”? And I probably err in the opposite direction because I try to go as off the nose as possible. The reader has to say, “Okay, I can see a smile that could go off like a home-made explosive device.”
TM: You mention Pritchett. As I was reading the book I was thinking of Samuel Beckett, of course.
KB: Sure, Irishmen waiting.
TM: Tell me some other influences on this book.
KB: The playwright I was thinking about mostly wasn’t Beckett, believe it or not, it was Harold Pinter. I really like those early Pinter plays from the early ’60s, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re really funny, but they’ve got great menace like a thread going through them. Those books were close to my desk as I was writing. I was also reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, his Lee Harvey Oswald novel.
TM: I remember we talked about that before—how the Jack Ruby character spoke to you.
KB: Exactly right. Sometimes as a writer you have books that you use like tuning forks. You come across favorite books by favorite writers where you know that the writer’s ear is just completely in. I often go back and read those Jack Ruby sections from Libra because there’s beautiful unexpected comedy in them, and great characterization, and just brilliant dialogue. Sometimes when you’re feeling flat or kind of slow you want to pick up some of the good stuff and remind yourself what the mountain looks like.
TM: You also mentioned that Elmore Leonard is another writer whose dialogue speaks to you.
KB: Oh, for sure. I love Elmore Leonard’s golden period, I’d say from the early ’70s to the early ’80s where he was just on fire, beautiful economy of storytelling and killer dialogue. I’ve always been a reader of crime fiction. I had a long period in my 20s of reading nothing but James Ellroy, which isn’t recommended [laughs]. The problem with reading a writer like Ellroy when you’re starting out as a writer is that the style is so strong and pronounced that you can’t help but ape it on the page. It’s funny, Night Boat to Tangier has elements of a crime novel. My U.S. editor describes it as a book with criminals in it rather than a crime book, and I think that’s kind of right. Especially in the title I was thinking about stuff like Graham Greene’s entertainments, things like Stamboul Train, that vaguely noirish, thrillerish atmosphere rather than plot. I was happy when I came up with the title Night Boat to Tangier. That’s Graham Greene-ish.
TM: Speaking of Graham Greene, I’ve got a question about Catholicism. There’s this description of a bartender in your novel: “He looked as if it were all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words.” Having been raised Catholic, I can attest that you nailed it there. Were you raised Catholic?
KB: I was, of course. When I was growing up here in the ’70s and ’80s, Ireland was still almost a Catholic monolith. It’s very different now in lots of ways. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but if there’s any Catholicism left in me it’s in my prose style. I’ve got a stained-glass-window of a prose style. I would sometimes love to have a lean, austere, stripped-back Protestant style, but it’s just fucken not in me, man [laughs]. I’m a stained-glass guy.
TM: Your novel’s protagonists, Charlie and Maurice, these guys are a load, and they carry the book on their beat-up backs. But I really fell for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, when she said she’s been listening to the reggae singer Lee Scratch Perry. That man’s a genius. Are you a fan, by any chance?
KB: Absolutely. I would argue strongly that one of the great cultural acts of the 20th century was when Lee Scratch Perry burned his Black Ark Studio (in Kingston, Jamaica) to the ground on the basis that it was possessed by duppies, by evil spirits. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to burn this thing to the ground and move to Switzerland.” I think that’s one of the greatest artistic gestures of our time. I listen to Scratch Perry all the time. But I’ve gotten quite jazzy with age. I listen to a lot more jazz than I used to, one of the reasons being I finally got a nice new record player, so I’ve been buying vinyl a lot and the jazz stuff sounds so good on vinyl. And it’s something I can listen to when I’m working without the distraction of lyrics.
TM: I went to see Scratch Perry perform in New York a few years ago, and I was afraid he was going to be gaga—but he was great! The band was tight, he was coherent, he was on his game.
KB: Yeah, he’s sober. He got off the weed.
TM: Let’s talk briefly about your novel’s form. You mentioned that is starts off in a kind of fantastical way and then becomes more realistic. Throughout, the paragraphs are short, very little punctuation, no quotation marks or dashes to denote dialog. Tell me about these decisions.
KB: This often, for me, is the fun of it and the enjoyment of it. I hate the first draft, it’s really slow and laborious, dragging the stuff out of your darkest recesses. What I tend to do is write long in the first draft so I have a lot of material to start playing with. For me, the fun of it is seeing how much scaffolding I can take away. At least that’s the way I am now as a writer. I probably had more of a maximalist approach when I was writing my first novel. Now I like to see how much of the traditional scenery of a novel I can remove and still keep the heart of the thing beating. I’m moving more toward subtraction than addition at this stage. Which isn’t to say that the next novel won’t be a big and baggy monster. You change all the time.
TM: How old are you now?
KB: I just turned 50. I had that significant birthday in June, and the novel is all about these two guys in their early 50s. It’s about one of those weird constellations that as you age you start to realize that the past isn’t a fixed entity. It keeps moving and shifting and rearranging itself back there. And this is the realization Maurice and Charlie have in the book—that things you thought meant one thing in your life meant something else. And it’s all going to keep moving. In a weird curious way, that’s one of the consolations of age. And also the book is about male friendship, which is written about weirdly rarely. It’s a really interesting subject, and when you’re doing two male friends talking a lot to each other, if you listen to what’s going on just beneath the surface, there are all these power battles.
It became clear to me after a while that what I was really writing was this portrait of a very strange extended family. When these two characters first showed up, they kept trying to get into short stories and they would immediately destroy the story because they’re too big. They were annoying me. I eventually realized I have to give these two fuckers their own thing and figure out who they are. I started off writing a play script but very quickly realized, no, it needed the kind of space a novel allows.
TM: The novel is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and the shortlist comes out Sept. 3. I’m wondering, are you having kittens or is this just another day in the life of Kevin Barry?
KB: It’s a big prize, and when I was put on the longlist there was a lot more noise around it, much more so than with other book prizes I’ve been involved with. I’ve been mostly managing to distract myself and not think about it too much, but it certainly does creep into one’s thoughts. But it’s really cool for the book. It gives it a good push.
Bonus Link: Bill Morris’s 2015 interview with Kevin Barry that appeared in The Daily Beast.
We seem to say this every six months or so, but what a year for books. The second half of 2019 brings new novels from Colson Whitehead, Ben Lerner, Jacqueline Woodson, and Margaret Atwood. It brings hotly anticipated first novels by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wayne Koestenbaum. It brings Zadie Smith’s very first short story collection. Riveting memoirs. Coming-of-age stories. With more than 100 titles, you’re going to have your hands full this fall. As always, please let us know what we missed in the comments, and look for additional titles in our monthly previews.
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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Fresh off a Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to the subject of America’s racist history with this tale of a college-bound black man who runs afoul of the law in Jim Crow Florida and ends up in the hellish Nickel Academy, where boys are beaten and sexually abused by the staff. In an early review, Publishers Weekly calls The Nickel Boys “a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.” (Michael)
The Need by Helen Phillips: This book had me at “existential thriller about motherhood” but when I found out that the mother in the book is also a paleobotanist, I pre-ordered, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the American Museum of Natural History staring at plant fossils. In case you need more convincing, it has garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, is on multiple summer reading lists, and is from the author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Some Possible Solutions. Also, the cover is gorgeous. (Hannah)
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar: In this modern-day Western, Tomar tells the story of a young woman’s search for her missing friend in the harsh desert landscape along the California-Nevada border. A gritty portrait of small-town life and the violence that plagues it, the novel formally experiments with time and narration. Publishers Weekly praises Tomar for “employing authorial sleight-of-hand…intentionally scrambl[ing] the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives.” (Matt)
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon: Buckhanon’s latest novel, her fourth, takes the reader on a quest to find out why a woman in Harlem disappeared after walking to the roof of her brownstone one day. The missing woman’s sister, Autumn, sets out to solve the case, after learning the police aren’t likely to provide her with answers. Autumn’s life unravels as her grief becomes overwhelming, and she grows steadily more fixated on the plight of missing women. (Thom)
The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks: In what Kirkus describes as “finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration,” Horrocks tells the story of Erik Satie and his siblings, Conrad and Louise. Set in La Belle Époque Paris, The Vexations is a finally wrought, sensitive novel about family and genius, and the toll that genius exacts on family in pursuit of great art. (Adam P.)
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter: Etter’s first novel, The Book of X, is a “natural extension” of her wild and raucous collection of stories, Tongue Party, which Deb Olin Unferth selected as winner of (the now defunct) Caketrain’s chapbook competition. Told in fragments, The Book of X alternates between the story of the alienated and disfigured Cassie, born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, and her fantasies of an alternate life for herself. Scott McClanahan calls The Book of X “our new Revelation,” while Blake Butler compares Etter’s voice to Angela Carter’s, declaring, “there’s a new boss in the Meat Quarry.” (Anne)
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky: Emma Straub says Dermanky’s fourth novel is, “her best yet.” If you’ve read Bad Marie and The Red Car, you know the bar is high and that no writer balances on the sharp edge between comedy and tragedy quite like Dermansky. Very Nice weaves several stories together, a wealthy divorcée in Connecticut, her college-age daughter, a famous American novelist, and a poodle, to ask a timely question—how much bad behavior from a bad man can we take? Maria Semple says it best, “so sexy and reads so smooth.” (Claire)
Circus: Or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by Wayne Koestenbaum
Poet, literary critic, and all-around cultural polymath Koestenbaum returns with this post-modern, Nabokovian take on creativity, sexuality, classical music, and the circus in his first novel. Drawing on his interests in camp, Queer theory, and the symphony hall, which he’s explored in critical works like The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum gives us the evocatively named Theo Mangrove, a polyamorous pianist who fantasizes that the Italian circus performer Moira Orfei will accompany him on his comeback concert in a medieval, walled French city. Koestenbaum’s hallucinatory lyricism lends itself to declaration like “After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest;” an aphorism every-bit worthy of poet John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (Ed)
They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez: Fulbright scholar Jimenez returns to her native New York in her first novel They Could Have Called Her Anything. A subway ride from Queens to the Upper East Side will see you take the F train while switching to the 6 or the Q, for an investment of about 45 minutes, but the actual distance between Maria Anis Rosario and her privileged friend Rocky’s life couldn’t be further apart. Jimenez’ debut explores the unexpected friendship between these girls at the elite private school both attend, a world where even though “certain girls at Bell Seminary were intimidated” by Maria, a connection would be made between her and Rocky across the chasms of race and class which define the city. (Ed)
Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch: The first novel from ffitch, the author of the 2014 short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and a longtime environmental activist living in Appalachia, Stay and Fight is both a social protest novel and the moving story of an unusual family. When Lily and Karen’s son is born, they know they’ll have to leave the women-only land trust where they’ve been living. Helen, who homesteads on 20 acres nearby, invites them to join her, and they settle into a new kind of domestic routine. But over the years the outside world edges nearer, threatening both the family and the Appalachian land that supports them. (Kaulie)
Costalegre by Courtney Maum: Maum’s third novel, her follow-up to I Am Having So Much Here Without You and Touch, is a pivot to historical fiction. Set in 1937, Costalegre is about heiress and art collector Leonora Calaway (modeled after Peggy Guggenheim), who bankrolls a group of Surrealist artists to flee Europe for Mexico. The book, narrated by Leonara’s 15-year-old daughter, has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly; the latter of which called it “a fascinating, lively, and exquisitely crafted novel.” Samantha Hunt says that Maum’s latest is “as heady, delirious and heartbreaking as a young girl just beginning to fall in love with our world.” (Edan)
The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: Most people probably know Lippman as a bestselling crime novelist, but I was recently introduced to her through Longreads, in her delightfully frank essay “Game of Crones” about being an old mother and staying true to her ambition to write a novel every year. Her latest novel is set in 1960s Baltimore and follows a housewife, Maddy Schwartz, who reinvents herself as a reporter after helping to solve a murder. Maddy becomes involved in another murder case when the body of a young woman is found at the bottom of city park lake. (Hannah)
Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández: This debut memoir of a young girl’s journey from Guatemala to L.A. weaves together personal essay and bilingual poetry. Described by publisher Feminist Press as “harrowing, candid, complex,” and by Bridgett M. Davis as bringing us “the immigrant experience in a refreshingly new light,” this one promises to be both timely and aesthetically exciting in its hybridity. (Sonya)
Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon): With a cast of characters large enough to populate a mid-size village, Ulitksaya delivers an epic, Tolstoyan Russian novel that may just win her some Anglophone fans but surely will impress no one in the Kremlin. For those ready to invest the time (560 pages), her look at the clash of free will and determinism provides a solid enough critique of the tragic, untidy histories of Russia and Ukraine over the last half of the 20th century in a lithe translation by Polly Gannon. (Il’ja)
Turbulence by David Szalay: In the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s latest book, 12 people take 12 flights around the world, touching each other’s lives in profound and unpredictable ways. Labeled as a novel but structured as a series of linked stories, Turbulence explores the interconnected nature of human relationships today. In Alex Preston’s review for The Guardian, he describes Szalay as an author “whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele: A worthy addition to the realm of speculative fiction, this debut novel “imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.” More than just standard techno-challenged-humanity-rendered-atavistic fare, this is a love story. More accurately, the quest for love and its potential in a world demanding to be rebuilt. (Il’ja)
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage: Set in 1978 war-torn Beirut, this tragicomic novel follows Pavlov, the son of a recently deceased local undertaker, as he joins the Hellfire Society – a secret group his late father was a member of. Throughout the novel, Hage, the second Canadian to win the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, asks what it means to live through war, and what can be preserved in the face of imminent death. In Canada, Beirut Hellfire Society was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. (Jacqueline)
Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Ella, an artistic grad school dropout turned caretaker, is hired to care for Jill, a woman who’s been left a shell of her old self after a traumatic brain injury leaves her largely nonverbal. But as she watches the dynamic between Jill and her loving husband, Bryn, Ella starts to question her own relationships—and get drawn further into the couple’s. Savage’s debut novel, informed by her own time working as a caretaker, gently digs at the roots of what keeps people together in the face of suffering and loss. (Kaulie)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: This anthology of essays by Native writers takes the formal art of basket weaving as an organizing theme, so that the authors, who include Deborah A. Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Kim TallBear, come together to produce something akin to a well-woven basket. Malea Powell writes that the book “offers us nonfiction that reflects, interrogates, critiques, imagines, prays, screams, and complicates simplistic notions about Native peoples and Native lives.” (Jacqueline)
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: This highly anticipated debut is not about sex but rather about “the heat and sting of female want,” according to author Lisa Taddeo, who spent years criss-crossing the country and conducting thousands of hours of interviews with women about the sources and consequences of their desires. The result is a triptych: a North Dakota woman who is labeled “a freaky slut” for reporting an affair with her high school English teacher; an unfulfilled Indiana wife and mother who reconnects with a high school crush and winds up “a tangle of need and anxiety”; and a Rhode Island restaurateur whose husband picks her partners, then watches them have sex. The book has already been dubbed “an instant feminist classic.” (Bill)
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger: Ambition, competition, and the fear of behind left out threaten to rip apart the bond between four families who are offered an unexpected chance at getting their kids into an elite school. The Paris Review notes that this satirical takedown of the concept of meritocracy in contemporary America serves as a timely expose of “the hypocrisy of white liberalism” that drives the pursuit of prestige. Caution: sense of humor required. (Il’ja)
The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory: In just two years, Jasmine Guillory has become a New York Times bestselling author and major force (the author of the first romance novel selected for Reese Witherspoon’s coveted book club, for one). Following The Wedding Date and The Proposal, The Wedding Party is one of two novels Guillory has coming out this year—look for Royal Holiday in the fall. (Lydia)
Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno: Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is just as ineluctable as the series of short, silent, black-and-white film portraits by Andy Warhol that they’re named after. This too gives a good sense of the book’s structure: a series of short glimpses that look deeply, and often contain autobiographical components or disquisitions. The effect, says Kirkus, is to “spin around like floating objects on an Alexander Calder mobile precariously tied together with ideas and images. Or rather, take Amber Sparks’ assessment: “If Thomas Bernhard’s and Fleur Jaeggy’s work had a charming, slightly misanthropic baby—with Diane Arbus as a nanny— it would be Screen Tests.” (Anne)
A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell: Pursell is the founder of the national reading series Why There are Words, as well as the WTAW press, which puts out excellent books each year. Now she publishes a collection of eerie, short (sometimes very short) stories, many of them focusing on themes of mothers and daughters, with themes from folklore and fairytale. Publishers Weekly called the collection “haunting,” “potent,” and “sharp but disturbing.” (Lydia)
What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal by E. Jean Carroll: This is a work of memoir by a woman who was raped by Donald Trump, who is the current President of the United States. A haunting excerpt from the book, with an account of the rape, was published here in The Cut. (Lydia)
Coventry by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s Outline trilogy—or as I think of it, The Cuskiad—is a masterpiece of modern literature, a formally adventurous exercise in narrative erasure that explores marriage, divorce, family, art, and representation. In her forthcoming essay collection Coventry, Cusk groups these thematic concerns into three sections, broadly: memoir, art, and criticism—although as Publishers Weekly says, the enterprise is bound by “the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives… something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.” (Adam P.)
The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott: If Scott’s talent didn’t catch your attention with Insurrections, his award-winning debut, he’ll draw even more readers with this second book. Cross River, Maryland, the fictional town of his first book, returns in this new story collection. Scott can shift between irreverent and complex in a single story—a single sentence—as in “David Sherman, the Last Son of God”: “David didn’t believe what his older brother preached and wondered if Delante, who now called himself Jesus Jesuson (everyone, though, referred to him as Jeez), really believed, but he didn’t ask.” Also: all praise to story collections like this one that end with an anchoring novella! (Nick R.)
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino’s essay collection is rangy and deft—nothing is treated superficially here. “I wrote this book because I am always confused,” she says in the introduction, but what follows are ardent and skilled attempts to make sense of the world. She tackles our digital lives (“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”), athleisure and women’s bodies (“These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image”), her evangelical childhood and departure from belief (“Christianity formed my deepest instincts: it gave me a leftist worldview, an obsession with everyday morality, an understanding of having been born in a compromised situation, and a need to continually investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”). Also: contemporary scams, her stint on reality TV, and the panoply of nuptials she attends: “My boyfriend maintains a running Google spreadsheet to keep track of the weddings we’ve been invited to together.” (Nick R.)
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price: The second novel by Adam O’Fallon Price, a staff writer at The Millions, is the rambunctious, ambitious, decades- and generations-jumping tale of the Sikorsky family, who transform an abandoned mansion into the titular jewel of the Borscht Belt. Inspired by Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel, Price uses a revolving cast of narrators to tell a story that is part murder mystery and part ghost story, with a dark secret lurking at its core. The novel asks a chilling question about the children who disappear from the towns and woods around the Hotel Neversink: Are they victims of coincidence, or part of a calculated plot to destroy the Sikorskys? (Bill)
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat: A collection of eight vigorous, compelling stories provides a storyteller’s insight to how migration to and from the Caribbean affected people’s lives, personalities, and relationships. Lovers, deeply wounded by the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, strive to reunite; an undocumented construction worker pictures his lover and adopted son in the last minute of his life; the christening of a baby reveals the chasm between the three generation of a family. “No one is immune from pain,” as Kirkus Review puts it, “but Danticat asks her readers to witness the integrity of her subjects as they excavate beauty and hope from uncertainty and loss.” (Jianan Qian)
Doxology by Nell Zink: New York City in the ’90s was not quite the hyper-sanitized playground for the super-rich which parts of it feel like today, with Nell Zink giving us a gritty account of the “worst punk band on the Lower East Side” right at the turn of the millennium. As the halcyon days of the 20th-century’s last decade end, grunge seemingly eclipsed with the falling of the twin towers, Doxology uses the personal and musical travails of bandmates Pam, Daniel, and Joe to investigate our current political and environmental moment. True to the Latin meaning of her title, Zink’s Doxology provides a means of praising God in a world where we’re so often faced with the finality of silence. Doxology, rather, provides the cacophony of punk. (Ed)
Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones): The 2018 International Man Booker prize has done it again, this time with a noir murder mystery that is less whodunnit than it is existential inquiry, namely: what are we here for? The protagonist—Janina Duszejko—is a brilliantly rendered Polish Miss Marple, (sort of) who Tokarczuk has asking the hard questions with art that is subtle and penetrating. And, as it turns out, getting her into a lot of trouble at home, with a hard-right leaning Polish press labeling the book “anti-Christian” and the work of “a traitor.” The film adaptation (Spoor) a couple of years back just about shut the country down. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation from Polish sparkles. (Il’ja)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: In 2015, Broom published an essay in The New Yorker about her family’s house in New Orleans that has sat with me since I read it. The piece starts with questions: “In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, what has plagued me most is the unfinished business of it all. Why is my brother Carl still babysitting ruins, sitting on the empty plot where our childhood home used to be? Why is my seventy-four-year-old mother, Ivory Mae, still unmoored, living in St. Rose, Louisiana, at Grandmother’s house? We call it Grandmother’s even though she died ten years ago. Her house, the only one remaining in our family, is a squat three-bedroom in a subdivision just off the River Road, which snakes seventy miles along the Mississippi, where plantation houses sit alongside grain mills and petrochemical refineries.” The next year, she was a Whiting Fellow, and this year, readers can get their hands on the book, a gorgeous work of memoir and reporting about place and family that feels like the apotheosis of a form. (Lydia)
The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Apollo wanders through a museum, trying to make sense of war and his own history. A chess-playing automaton falls in love. Dead girls tell the story of a catastrophe and its aftermath. Bucak’s debut story collection is a surrealist wunderkammer in which the lines between history and myth, reality and performance, and the cultural and personal are blurred and redrawn. The result: “narratively precise” stories that “are also beautiful vignettes on human culture, deftly probing the fissures and pressure points of history and bringing up new forms,” writes The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Kaulie)
Inland by Téa Obreht: In 2011, at age 26, Obreht burst onto the literary scene with her first novel The Tiger’s Wife, an inventive, fable-like retelling of the wars that ravaged her native Serbia in the 1990s. Eight years later, Obreht returns with – wait for it – a Western set in the Arizona Territory in 1893. No, we didn’t see that coming, either. Early reviews are rapturous, including one from Booklist that called it “a tornadic novel of stoicism, anguish, and wonder.” Yes, tornadic. (Michael)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder): Critically acclaimed Japanese writer Ogawa’s new novel takes place in a society where objects disappear and where the terrifying Memory Police pursue citizens who recall the disappeared objects. The protagonist is a young novelist who discovers her editor is in danger and decides to hide him beneath her floorboards. The Memory Police explores trauma, loss, memory, and surveillance, and will astound readers. Chicago Tribune calls it “a masterful work of speculative fiction” and Esquire writes, “Ogawa’s taut novel of surveillance makes for timely, provocative reading.” (Zoë)
The Overthrow by Caleb Crain: A new novel from the author of Necessary Errors, The Overthrow is a romance and a story of relationships set against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, exploring, power, idealism, technology, and the way we forge connections in the dystopian world we’ve created. Keith Gessen calls it “a brilliant, terrifying, and entertaining book…part subtle novel of contemporary manners, part intellectual legal thriller, and part prophetic dystopia: Henry James meets Bonfire of the Vanities.” Sign me up. (Lydia)
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda: As we read daily of the horrors of detainment camps at the border, poet Brandon Shimoda directs our attention back to a not dissimilar blight in Grave on the Wall. It’s an elegy for Shimoda’s dead grandfather, Midori, who after Pearl Harbor was incarcerated in internment camps despite having lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Don Mee Choi calls Grave on the Wall “a remarkable exploration of how citizenship is forged by the brutal US imperial forces—through slave labor, forced detention, indiscriminate bombing, historical amnesia and wall.” Shimoda’s remembrance is also for the living, says Karen Tei Yamashita: “we who survive on the margins of graveyards and rituals of our own making.” (Anne)
When I was White by Sarah Valentine: A memoir from the author, translator, and scholar about being raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a white person, only to learn at age 27 that her father was a black man. The memoir explores the painful process of uncovering the past, interrogating the decisions her family made, and reconceiving her own identity. Publishers Weekly calls it “a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.” (Lydia)
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers: Powers’s debut novel is the story of the big lie behind the Soviet space program: They can send manned flights up, they just can’t seem to get them back down. And so they are using twins – one who will touch the face of God and the other who will stay behind on terra firm to make sure there’s an acceptable, Kremlin-approved PR tour afterward if things go badly up in space. Which they inevitably do. Mixing history and fiction, the book isn’t so much about the foibles of geopolitics as it is about one man’s search for truth in a world built on lies. (Il’ja)
White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination by Jess Row: “White flight” typically refers to the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, but in this work of criticism, Row extends the term to literature. Combining memoir as well as literary, filmic, and musical analysis, Row argues for an understanding of writing as reparative, and fiction as a space in which writers might “approach each other again.” Kirkus calls it “wide-ranging, erudite, and impassioned.” (Jacqueline)
The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown: The cultural narrative surrounding disability has long been overdue for a complete overhaul, and in her debut book, The Pretty One, Keah Brown offers her refreshing, joyful voice to this movement. Brown, a disability rights advocate and creator of the viral #DisabledAndCute campaign, explores aspects of pop culture, music, family, self acceptance, and love in her essays, all the while challenging society’s assumptions of what it means to be black and disabled. (Kate Gavino)
I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton: Few critics quit understand the implications of our cultural divisions in the warm autumn of the Anthropocene more than University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton. Exploring themes that he’s written about in collections ranging from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, Scranton’s second novel returns us to a badly fractured America. A writer named Suzie travels a broken, pre-apocalyptic America that looks very much like our own nation, a place so “highly refined and audacious and dense that nobody care whether it’s bullshit or not.”
When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang: The second in Nganang’s trilogy on Cameroon before and during WWII, When the Plums Are Ripe tells the story of the country’s growing involvement in the conflict as the colonized fight to free their colonizer from Axis control. But the book is as much poetry as history, with a structure calling on oral traditions and a poet-narrator who mourns the wounds of war. Publishers Weekly writes that “with lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang… challeng[es] the Euro-written history of colonialism and replac[es] it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.” (Kaulie)
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons: A story collection rooted in the vastness and contradictions of Texas and composed by an author who refuses to shy away from the strange, ugly, and interesting, Black Light has been described as “Friday Night Lights meets Ottessa Moshfegh.” What more could a reader want, really? (Kaulie)
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: With racial invective spewed from the Twitterer-in-Chief on down, many white Americans have become increasingly entrenched in their prejudices. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi returns to a subject which he illuminated so well in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,, asking how we avoid both fatalism and despair in imagining what a future, antiracist version of the United States might look like. Kendi’s answers are neither to embrace the myopic obstinacy of “color blindness,” nor the feel-good platitudes of “wokeness,” but rather to acknowledge that the individual responsibility of being antiracist is “an everyday process.” (Ed)
God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz: Lenz—a journalist whose profiles and personal essays are absolute must reads—brings a book that combines memoir and journalism. After the 2016 election, Lenz leaves her Trump-supporting husband and her church—and begins to travel to churches across the Midwest to understand the incomprehensible: faith in today’s America. Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the book a “slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America.” (Carolyn)
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin: This debut novel tells the story of Tunde Akinola’s Nigerian family as they struggle to assimilate in the impossibly foreign world of Utah. As Tunde’s father chases his version of the American Dream and his mother sinks into schizophrenia, Tunde will be forced to spend his childhood and young adulthood seeking elusive connections—through his stepmother and stepbrothers, through evangelical religion, through the black students at his middle school and the fraternity brothers at his historically black college. This is a novel that will force readers to rethink notions of family, belonging, memory, and the act of storytelling. (Bill)
Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen): Set in the near future, this novel, which Kirkus describes as a “thoughtful political thriller with a provocative sense of humor,” tells the story of Britta and Babak, who run an agency that provides suicide bombing candidates to activists/terrorists. In this post-Angela Merkel Germany, their agency provides a needed antidote to both the conservative government takeover and liberals’ passive acceptance of the new order. When two unknown suicide bombers show up in an airport, things get complicated. (Jacqueline)
Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt: NEA Fellow Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel is as bold and unflinching as its title suggests. The book follows suburban Maryland-born and raised Denny as she literally runs away from her grief and inability to confront mortality, that has come in the form of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. As she flings herself into the wilderness, Denny is wildly unprepared and accompanied only by her imagination (& her imaginary friend, Gene) in what appears like a slow form of suicide. Goldblatt nails suburban MD ennui, outdoor unpreparedness, gritty sex scenes, and a refutation of sentimentality in what R.O. Kwon calls a “blazing feat of a book.” (Anne)
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)
Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: At 56, Jacqueline Woodson is moving and shaking in both YA and adult literature realms. Her new adult novel brings together a clash of social classes via an unexpected pregnancy. Another slim, compressed volume à la Another Brooklyn, Red at the Bone moves “forward and backward in time, with the power of poetry and the emotional richness of a narrative ten times its length.” Two words: can’t wait. (Sonya)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)
Akin by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue is one of our most versatile writers. She does many things well, including historical fiction, middle grade series, and scripts for screen and stage. Akin, like her international bestseller Room, is positioned as contemporary fiction. It’s about a retired professor who plans to travel to Nice, France to discover more about his mother’s wartime past. Two days before the trip, circumstances mean he must take charge of his potty-mouthed pre-teen nephew. As the pair travel together, they uncover secrets about their family and discover a bond and, as the publisher’s blurb says, “they are more akin than they knew.” (Claire)
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke: The universe will soon award us with a new Attica Locke novel! Heaven, My Home is the follow-up to Locke’s Edgar Award-winning thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, and it once again centers on black Texas Ranger Daren Matthews. This time, he’s pulled into the case of a missing nine-year-old boy—and the boy’s white supremacist family. The jacket copy declares: “Darren has to battle centuries-old suspicions and prejudices, as well as threats that have been reignited in the current political climate, as he races to find the boy, and to save himself.” Attica Locke is one of the best writers working today, and I cannot wait to read this. (Edan)
Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)
How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together by Dan Kois: A terrible snowstorm can derail a well-planned life, and two feet of snow in one day was “the perfect crucible to reveal how broken our family life was. Our household operated like the nation’s air traffic network: we functioned, but forever on the edge of catastrophe.” Kois is funny and sometimes satirical, but always in service of a great end: the very real lament that family life is “flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense.” Kois and his family actually take the dizzying leap to leave behind their lives for a year—a trek that takes them from New Zealand to Kansas—and the result is a unique book that every overstressed and anxious (meaning = every) parent should read. (Nick R)
The Cheffe by Marie Ndiaye: Goncourt and Femina Prix-winning, French-born and Berlin-based Ndiaye brings us another woman-centered novel, this time about a GFC— Great Female Chef. The story is told from the perspective of a male sous-chef (and unrequited lover), from a perspective years onward. Ndiaye’s work is often described as “hypnotic,” so perhaps add this one to your summer-escape TBR list. (Sonya)
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker: Award-winning poet Morgan Parker offers a new coming-of-age story featuring a protagonist that just can’t seem to figure it out. From spending her summer crying in bed to being teased about not being “really black” by her mostly white classmates, 17-year-old Morgan can see clearly why she’s in therapy. Parker’s account of teenage anxiety and depression will speak to readers of all ages, and the prose’s mix of heartbreak and hilarity makes it a prime candidate for film adaptation. Are you paying attention, Netflix? (Kate Gavino)
The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball: In what Publishers Weekly called an “atmospheric, occasionally mesmerizing tale of haves and have-nots,” Ball (Census) returns with a novel about a society that has rejected equality and embraced brutality. Through vignettes, the novel reveals how the world descended into madness. A dystopian tale imbued with empathy, philosophical musings, and questions about compassion, generational trauma, and humanity. (Carolyn)
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith: Patti Smith started writing this book on the Lunar New Year’s Day in 2016; she carried the project “in cafes, trains and strange motels by the sea, with no particular design, until page by page it became a book,” as she announced in her Instagram. This memoir evolves around the transformations both in her life and the American political landscape. Intriguing, disturbing yet humorous, with the boundary between fiction and nonfiction blurred, Smith’s work is unlikely to disappoint. (Jianan Qian)
Fly Already by Etgar Keret: Keret’s new short story collection offers all the virtues readers have come to expect from the oft-New Yorker-published Keret: intelligence, compassion, frustration with the limits of human communication, and a playfulness that stays on the right side of whimsy. Whether it’s a father’s helpless desire to protect his son, a boy failing to obtain weed to impress a girl, or two people sharing a smoke on the beach, Keret’s deep interest in human connection feels important in our fractured times. As George Saunders says, “I am very happy that Etgar and his work are in the world, making things better.” (Adam P.)
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Pettina Gappah: A novel of the group of people who carried David Livingstone’s body (along with his papers and effects) 1500 miles so that he could returned to England, narrated by Halima, the expedition’s cook, and a formerly enslaved man named Jacob. Jesmyn Ward writes, “A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.” (Lydia)
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Shaun Whiteside): No contemporary French writer has interceded into the current Anglophone imagination quite as completely as Michel Houellebecq. From novels like The Elementary Particles to Submission, the cynical Houellebecq has explored everything from existentialism to sex tourism, through a voice that is simultaneously traditionalist and nihilistic, and critics and readers have argued how seriously we’re to take the reprehensible—racist, mysoginist, Islamophobic, colonialist—positions of the writer or his characters. Serotonin follows Florent-Claude Labrouste, a depressed libertine and former agricultural engineer who eventually rejects psychotropic medication in favor of a sojourn to the cheese-country of Normandy racked by globalization, where he becomes involved in an insurrection which looks very much like the gilets jaunes movement. Even while Houellebecq’s politics can be reprehensible, ranging from embrace of Brexit to denunciations of #MeToo, Serotonin’s observation of a contemporary capitalism where “people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed” is instrumental in understanding not just France or Europe, but the world. (Ed)
Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin: In her debut memoir, Austin, a single black woman, writes about her journey to adopt a black boy out of foster care. In a recent interview, Austin said, “Ultimately, I wrote Motherhood So White out of necessity. I wanted black mothers who come after me to have multiple perspectives on motherhood, not just the mainstream definition of who gets to be a mom in America. I want white mothers to see black mothers on the page and know that we are all allies in the quest for raising compassionate children.” (Edan)
Doppelgänger by Daša Drndic (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkseworth): World Literature Today calls this set of linked stories a “haunting requiem for the soul’s death in the wake of postmodernity.” Translation: Drndic’s trademark absurdist humor and image rich style assure that this slim collection will get the synapses firing. (Il’ja)
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: In 2016, Amitav Ghosh published The Great Derangement, which argues that contemporary literary fiction, among other art forms, seems unable to directly confront the scale and impact of climate change. In an article for The Guardian, Ghosh writes, of the extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, “To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.” Now, the author of the bestselling Ibis trilogy has written a novel that seeks to make a change in that tradition. Gun Island tells the story of rare books-dealer Deen Datta as he travels from India to Los Angeles to Venice, encountering people who will upend his understanding of himself, the world, and the Bengali legends of his childhood. (Jacqueline)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong: Three women from disparate backgrounds—Ireland, Cincinnati, and Japan—tell the story of one man: Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek author known for his books about Japanese legends and cultures. In this globetrotting, luminous novel, the three narrators offer an honest, contradictory portrait of the man they knew that highlights the social expectations of their gender, race, and class for their time. Like her first novel, The Book of Salt, The Sweetest Fruits leads readers on a sweeping narrative that poses questions about belonging, existence, and storytelling. (Kate Gavino)
Chimerica by Anita Felicelli: A fantastic, fantastical book built around the country of “Chimerica,” wherein a Tamil American trial lawyer is hard at work on a case…which happens to be a defense of a talking lemur come to life. Set in locations ranging from Oakland to Madagascar, Jonathan Lethem calls Chimerica “remarkable…a coolly surrealist legal thriller—in turns sly, absurd, emotionally vivid, and satirically incisive—that shifts the reader into a world just adjacent to our own.” (Read Felicelli’s conversation with Huda al-Marashi at The Millions here.) (Lydia)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: The protagonist of Levy’s newest would do well to avoid Abbey Road, where he is hit by a car twice, once in 1998, right before a trip to East Germany to bury his father’s ashes, and once again in 2016. From these two brushes with death, Levy spins one of her typically entrancing narratives, one that, like Hot Milk, explores cross-cultural encounters and the strange, intense, and occasionally monstrous nature of familial ties. (Matt)
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin: The fourth book from Australia’s Tumarkin, whose previous works have been shortlisted for several major literary prizes Down Under, Axiomaticsharply examines how we think about the force of the past on the present in a blend of storytelling, criticism, and meditation. The book spirals out from five axioms—think “Time Heals All Wounds,” “History Repeats Itself,” and “You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice”—to consider stories of struggle, trauma, and the strength of human relationships, creating a new and powerful nonfiction form along the way. (Kaulie)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)
The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness by Anne Boyer: I hadn’t thought it possible to write beautifully about chemotherapeutic drugs until I read the excerpt from poet Anne Boyer’s The Undying that was published in The New Yorker. Witness: “Adriamycin, is named for the Adriatic Sea, near where it was discovered. I like to think of this poison as the ruby of the Adriatic, where I have never been but would like to go, but it is also called ‘the red devil,’ and sometimes it is called “‘the red death.’” Boyer’s memoir covers developing breast cancer at 41, her treatment, and her double mastectomy, as well as scrutiny of a capitalist driven medical industry. Boyer’s memoir is a “haunting testimony about death that is filled with life,” according to Kirkus. (Anne)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: Fans of the great Irish writer Kevin Barry have reason to rejoice. The prize-winning author of City of Bohane, Dark Lies the Island and Beatlebone is out with a scalding little hotwire of a novel called Night Boat to Tangier. The setup would’ve delighted Beckett. On October 23, 2018, two aged-out Irish drug-runners, Maurice (Moss) Hearne and Charlie Redmon, are sitting in the waiting room of the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras. What are they waiting for? Maurice’s estranged daughter. As they wait, the men spin a reverie of past betrayals, violence and romance, with asides on drink, masturbation and the imminence of death. As always with Barry, the writing is slippery, slangy and sinewy, and a pure delight. (Bill)
Rusty Brown by Chris Ware: How long does it take to investigate, narrate, and illustrate an entire consciousness during one half of a typical day? In Chris Ware’s case, almost two decades. Across 350+ pages, Ware’s graphic novel unfolds like a Joycean spin on Grouse County, Iowa, depicting the melancholic, yearning thoughts of Midwestern characters moving through realities shared and cloistered. Doing that at all—let alone in 18 years—is superhuman. (Nick M.)
Find Me by André Aciman: In a most-anticipated list, Aciman’s Find Me may be the most anticipated of all. Set decades after Oliver and Elio first meet in Call Me by Your Name, this novel follows Elio’s father Samuel, who while traveling to Rome to visit his son meets a young woman who changes his life; Elio, a classical pianist who moves to Paris; and Oliver, a New England college professor and family man who yearns to return to Italy. I’m aching to read this and I know I’ll be aching while reading it too. (Carolyn)
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as “a powerful allegory of our troubled present.” Set in late 1990s Kansas, it centers on a lefty family in a red state. The mother is a famous feminist author; the father, a psychiatrist who specializes in “lost boys.” Their son, Adam Gordon, is a debate champion who unwittingly brings one of his father’s troubled patients into his friend group, to disastrous effect. (Hannah)
Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Grand Union is the first short story collection of Zadie Smith, the award-winning author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, among others. Ten unpublished new stories will be put alongside with ten of her much-applauded pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere. Everything, however familiar or small it may seem in daily life, glows in Smith’s brilliant observation. Grand Union is a wonderful meditation on time and place, past and future, identity and the possibility of rebirth. (Jianan Qian)
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones: A 2014 NBCC finalist for his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, How We Fight for Our Lives tells Jones’ coming-of-age as a black gay boy and man in the South via prose-poetry vignettes. From the publisher: “Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze.” (Sonya)
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay is a propulsive and well-plotted novel set in Los Angeles where crime and tension are at an all-time high. In Cha’s narrative that explores race, class, and community in Los Angeles, her characters must confront their histories and truth. Catherine Chung describes Your House Will Pay as “a devastating exploration of grief, shame, and deeply buried truths.” (Zoë)
Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz: In her debut memoir, Jaquira Díaz mines her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, grappling with traumas both personal and international, and over time converts them into something approaching hope and self-assurance. For years, Díaz has dazzled in shorter formats—stories, essays, etc.—and her entrée into longer lengths is very welcome. (Nick M.)
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Hiroshima-based fiction writer Hiroko Oyamada has been called one of the most “powerfully strange” new voices to emerge from Japan of late. No surprise then that she cites Franz Kafka and Mario Vargas Llosa as influences. This fall New Directions is publishing The Factory, Oyamada’s first novel to be translated into English, and that was inspired by her experience working as a temp for an auto worker’s subsidiary. The Factory follows three seemingly unrelated characters intently focused on their jobs—studying moss, shredding paper, proofreading documents—though trajectories come together as their margins of reality, and the boundaries between life within and beyond the factory dissolve. (Anne)
Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetimes, but concealed in those conservative, anonymized figures is the mind-bending enormity of 33,000,000 individual women and their stories. In her latest memoir, Jeannie Vanasco shares hers. Remarkably, Vanasco interviews the former friend who raped her 15 years ago, interweaving their discussions with conversations involving her close friends and peers to produce an investigation of trauma, its effects, and the ways they affect us all. “Courageous” is an inadequate word to describe this project, let alone Vanasco herself. (Nick M.)
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré: le Carré is set to offer his 25th novel since debuting with Call for the Dead back in 1961. And though the territory is familiar—London, a played out spy, a web of political intrigue—there is nothing tired in the author’s indictment of modern life: we are fickle, selfish, dogmatic, narrow minded and too often cruel bastards. The whole lot of us. My advice: if you have been stuck on thought that Le Carré is writing “spy novels” and you don’t like “spy novels”, you need to rethink. There is perhaps no more thrilling chronicler of the human condition working today. His stories are about people with secrets. You know, us. (Il’ja)
False Bingo by Jac Jemc: The unsettling horror that made Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It such an unnerving read has mutated into an uneasiness that infiltrates the everyday lives depicted in False Bingo, Jemc’s second book of short stories. Jemc’s characters are misfits and dislocated, and their encounters often cross the line where fear becomes reality. There’s a father with dementia who develops an online shopping addiction and an outcast mulling over regret as he taxidermies animals. In essence False Bingo is a “collection of realist fables exploring how conflicting moralities can coexist: the good, the bad, the indecipherable.” (Anne)
Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber: Haber, who has been called “one of the most influential yet low-key of tastemakers in the book world,” is about to raise it to up level with the debut of his novel, Reinhardt’s Garden. This absurdist satire follows Jacov Reinhardt and scribe as they travel across continents in search of a legendary philosopher who has “retired” to the jungles of South America. It’s “an enterprise that makes Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo … come off as a levelheaded pragmatist,” says Hernán Díaz. While Rodrigo Fresán calls it “one of those perfect books” on the level of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. (Anne)
Older Brother by Mahir Guven (translated by Tina Kover): Awarded the Prix Goncourt for debut novel in 2017, Older Brother takes on the Uberization of labor alongside a look at immigration, civil war, and terrorism through the story of two brothers from a French-Syrian family, and their father, a taxi driver whose way of life is utterly at odds with those of his sons. (Lydia)
Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok: In Last of Her Name, the new collection from Chinese author Mimi Lok, the stories’ settings cover a little bit of everything—British suburbia, war-time Hong Kong, modern California—and the diasporic women at the heart of each piece are just as eclectic. The effect is a kaleidoscope of female desire, family, and resilience. “I can’t think of a collection that better speaks to this moment of global movement and collective rupture from homes and history, and the struggle to find meaning despite it all,” writes Dave Eggers. (Kaulie)
The Girl At the Door by Veronica Raimo: Let’s say you fall in love while on vacation. The guy, a professor, seems great. You leave your country and move in with him. You get pregnant. You’re happy. Then: A girl shows up at the door. She’s your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a former student, with details about a violent, drawn-out affair. What now? That’s the premise of this novel, one that dissects sexual harassment and assault from the point of view of both the professor and his girlfriend. Raimo has published two novels in Italy; this is her English-language debut. (Hannah)
Holding On To Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: This debut novel set in the mountains and hollows of Eastern Tennessee will charm you with its warmth and love for its characters, a cast that includes a dog named Crystal Gale. (Which has to be one of the best pet names in fiction.) The novel centers on Lucy Kilgore, a young woman who was planning to leave small town Tennessee but instead ends up getting shotgun-married to Jeptha Taylor, a bluegrass musician with a drinking problem. With too little money and too much alcohol in their lives, their little family is doomed from the start, but Lucy can’t help trying to hold everyone together. (Hannah)
A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son by Sergio Troncoso: A collection of stories about told from the perspective of a Mexican-American man born to poor parents and making his way through the elite institutions of America. Luis Alberto Urrea calls the book “a world-class collection.” (Lydia)
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm-owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly-deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Would you be the nanny to your ex-best-friend’s stepchildren? Yes, really? Okay. What if they were twins? Still with me? What if they exhibited strange behaviors? Still on board? What if they spontaneously caught fire when agitated? Yes? Then you must be the kind of character that only Kevin Wilson can pull off, in this, his third novel that marries the fantastic with the domestic. (Hannah)
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin American writers and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)
The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)
They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears by Johannes Anyuru (translated by Saskia Vogel): Anyuru, a Swedish-Ugandan author, took home the Swedish-language August Prize for Fiction for this tale of authoritarianism and hate in modern Europe. After terrorists bomb a bookstore for hosting a provocative cartoonist, one of the terrorists has a vision of the future she may have brought about. Years later, a psychiatrist goes to visit her in the clinic where she’s been institutionalized, and she informs him she’s a traveler from an awful, dystopian future. As she describes a world in which “anti-Swedish” citizens are forced into a ghetto called The Rabbit’s Yard, the psychiatrist grows convinced that her sci-fi predictions are the truth.
What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books – novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels – and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a five-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)
The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)
Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)
I divide this year’s shortlist into three categories: Tales Well Told, Fun Stuff, and Miracles of Voice.
Tales Well Told includes books with stories that captivated. In some cases I wasn’t sure why I liked the book, but I just wanted to keep reading. More, more! These were the books I left parties early to go home to read (or for which, more likely, I skipped the party), the ones that might have caused me to miss my subway stop had I read them on the subway, but I usually didn’t because I had already read them through the night before. Gripping stories, unexpected turns of plot, I have to know what happens next! More, more, more! Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I picked up having been entranced by her reading at last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival; Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, every bit as wonderful as Wolf Hall; two impressive and chilling debut novels: The Kept by James Scott and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You; Robin Black’s Life Drawing, which I read in one sitting; Elizabeth Kadetsky’s transporting The Poison that Purifies You; Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka, hand-sold to me by a very smart bookseller; and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade, recommended to me by some wise person on Facebook when I said I was looking for something sad — what that man does with dialogue!
I tend to read a lot of Fun Stuff — by which I mean lively work that makes me laugh, enjoyable books, playful books, entertaining and absurd books. Among the best I read this year were Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi; Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; and the brilliant, moving, and otherwise-perfect-in-every-way How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu.
The largest group of loved books this year and probably every year are Miracles of Voice, almost all of which, perhaps because of their eccentricities, are small press books: Alissa Nutting’s riveting collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls; Lore Segal’s witty and sad Half the Kingdom; Jeff Jackson’s startling Mira Corpora; Submergence, J.M. Ledgard’s gorgeous tour de force; Catherine Lacey’s stunning Nobody Is Ever Missing; Kevin Barry’s captivating City of Bohane; and, perhaps above all, Patrick McCabe’s heartbreaking The Butcher Boy, the voice of which stayed in my head for many inconvenient days when I was trying to write my own original pages.
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I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.
“Why, thank you very much,” McBride said from under the brim of his porkpie hat when I bumped into him at the pre-awards cocktail party and told him how I felt about his book. When I wished him luck at the awards ceremony later in the evening and told him I was pulling for him to win, he waved his arm at the cavernous banquet room and said, “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.”
I didn’t expect McBride to win the National Book Award that night because he was up against bigger names — Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rachel Kushner — and I long ago stopped believing that artistic awards are based solely on artistic merit. McBride obviously didn’t expect to win, either, because when his name was called out as the winner for fiction, he stepped to the podium without a prepared speech, visibly surprised. “I didn’t think I would win today,” he told the crowd of 700. Then, echoing what he had said to me earlier at the cocktail party, he added, “If any of the others writers had won I wouldn’t feel bad because they’re all fine writers. But it sure is nice to win.”
And it sure is nice to see such a deserving winner. The Good Lord Bird is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas territory who is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, then, passing as a girl, follows Brown on his various military and political campaigns, all the way to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a major catalyst for the Civil War. (The book’s title refers to the red-headed woodpecker, a bird whose feathers serve as charms, a bird so beautiful that when people see one, they cry, “Good Lord.”) Henry, known as Henrietta or “Onion” to Brown and his ragtag army, narrates the story in a frontier vernacular that is by turns hilarious, bawdy, and wise. Her sharpest insights are on race and slavery, and they’re as valid today as they were a century and a half ago. No one, black or white, slave or free, gets a free ride from Henrietta Shackleford, including Henrietta Shackleford. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on the lies black people tell themselves: “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception.” And here’s Henrietta on what it means to be black: “Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.”
The novel has obvious antecedents in the works of Twain and Cervantes, James Baldwin and William Styron. But its framing device — even its opening lines — owe a debt to another tall tale insinuated from American history, Thomas Berger’s indelible epic of the Indian wars, Little Big Man. That novel purports to be the tape-recorded reminiscences of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man who was snatched by Cheyenne Indians as a boy and grew up straddling the racial divide, living with both Indians and whites, finally fighting alongside Gen. George Armstrong Custer and becoming the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Good Lord Bird purports to be the reminiscences of 111-year-old Henry Shackleford, written down by a preacher in 1942, then locked away and finally salvaged from a church fire in 1966. Instead of straddling the racial divide, Henry crosses other lines — between male and female, freeman and slave, country rube and city slicker — and he winds up in the heat of battle alongside John Brown, becoming the only black survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Here’s the opening of The Good Lord Bird: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” And here’s the opening of Little Big Man: “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.” Even the climactic battle scenes share a chapter title: McBride’s is “Last Stand”; Berger’s is “The Last Stand.” (In a follow-up e-mail, McBride acknowledged Berger’s influence, adding that he also drew on the writings of Leon Litwack and Daryl Cumber Dance.)
I don’t buy books or movie tickets based on awards, and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought my copy of The Good Lord Bird before it was nominated for the National Book Award and I finished reading it before the awards ceremony. That’s not to say I’m opposed to book awards. As they long as they connect readers with writers — and sell books — I’m all for them. McBride’s publisher, Riverhead Books, announced that it was printing an additional 45,000 copies of The Good Lord Bird as soon as the award was announced, bringing the number in print to more than 82,000. I hope they sell like Krispy Kremes. James McBride is an important and thrilling writer, and he deserves to be widely read.
None of the above is to denigrate the other four fiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award. As McBride put it, they are all fine writers. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in particular, struck me as a book that announced the arrival of a major talent. The novel, which roams from the Bonneville salt flats to the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s to the political barricades in Italy, was a stirring expansion of the promise Kushner showed in her 2008 debut, Telex From Cuba, which was also a National Book Award finalist. Both novels exhibit Kushner’s outsized gifts: her ambition, her narrative dexterity, her ability to paint complex characters and put them in motion in vividly imagined historical settings. Whether she’s writing about the First World War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or the 1970s art scene, Kushner succeeds because she understands how to handle her prodigious historical research. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.”
There were other delights this year. One of the chiefest, because it was so personal, was the publication of Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong, a sweeping history of the chicanery that has been festering under the state capitol’s green dome in Harrisburg, Pa., for more than a century. It was written by a veteran shoe-leather reporter named Brad Bumsted, who happens to be the man who took me under his wing and taught me the reporter’s craft at the daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., back in the 1970s. As I wrote in my essay about Keystone Corruption, “Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on — not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.”
Though it was published late last year, I’ve got to mention a gem of a book that should burnish the reputation of a writer who has written five novels that are classics, even though too few people have read them. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings, is a great teeming smorgasbord of Portis’s journalism, travel writing, short stories, drama and memoir. The book also includes a rare interview with Portis and tributes from admirers, including Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, and Donna Tartt. In addition to its abundant wit and wisdom, this book is virtually a connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in newspaper city rooms in Tennessee, Arkansas and New York. I hope it will attract new readers to Portis’s novels, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.
Another writer who deserves a wider audience is Nick Turse, who produced a magisterial work of history this year called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation ,and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration — not a one-off atrocity called My Lai — but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. This book’s lessons, like James McBride’s insights on race, are as valid today as they were when America was blundering its way to a shameful military disaster four decades ago.
A pleasant surprise landed in my mailbox in April — a handsome new paperback edition of They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross published in his lifetime, now widely regarded as the progenitor of “country noir.” This new edition, published by Mysterious Press, includes a foreword by Daniel Woodrell, a Ross acolyte who says he first read the novel in the 1970s because George V. Higgins “vouched for it as both literature and a good time.” A funny, bloody, world-wise tale of violent doings at a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression, the book was published in 1940 to high praise from Flannery O’Connor, among others, but it sold poorly and soon disappeared. A new edition appeared in the 1970s, attracting a new generation of fans, including Woodrell. And now, another three and a half decades after the second edition, we have a third. As Woodrell writes, “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”
Last but far from least, this year the Irish writer Kevin Barry followed up his blistering novel, City of Bohane, with an equally strong collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island. The man uses the English language like a musical instrument. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: You must read Kevin Barry.
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The Imp of the Perverse, not Patrick, may be the patron saint of this particular Irishman. Read the fictions of 2013 IMPAC winner Kevin Barry — he snagged the 100,000-euro prize with the bloody and lyrical novel City of Bohane — and you’ll discern the presence of a little demon stalking his people, a green-eyed creeping death with a rain-wracked ginger topknot. These souls find doing the right thing, whether it be moral or rational, quite the difficulty. The barriers are often karmically insurmountable. And as in his new book, the award-winning collection Dark Lies the Island, the affliction makes for consistently glorious, and often hilarious, reading.
Burn enough hours with the mind behind it all and you’ll detect certain immutable qualities, including a genuine affability, a grindstone work ethic, and immense empathy. The lattermost, a good thing for any writer, seems to be what also makes his readings among the most entertaining and virtuosic I’ve ever witnessed. The confidence and timing of a seasoned actor or comedian come naturally — the characters are made flesh — and as a story unspools in Barry’s easy Irish timbre, it reeks of the real, of the truth, no matter how fantastical the tale.
Barry recently visited Oregon for Portland’s Wordstock festival, and as is required by law here, I invited him out for some cycling (“I’ll ride 80k a day”) and some pints at the legendary Horse Brass Pub (“You Americans — look, if it’s over 5 percent, it isn’t beer; it’s fucking tawny port wine”). We inevitably found a good session beer to his liking and then talked at length about his work, the subconscious, the ’burbs, failure, the supernatural, Southern writers, comic fiction, and Ireland’s formidable literary legacy.
The Millions: Some biography, please.
Kevin Barry: I’m from Limerick city, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m 44. I’ve published three books, and I cycle my bike a lot in County Sligo. I live in an old police station there, in a swamp, essentially. And if I don’t write in the day, I don’t feel good for anything much.
TM: Did you grow up in Limerick?
KB: Pretty much in Limerick city until my late teens, in the suburbs. And when you grow up in an Irish suburb in the seventies, you may as well be in a suburb of Toronto or Phoenix. Most of the cultural feeds are precisely the same, except there’s also something slightly other about the language. Irish writers maybe have a slight edge because of the way we fucking mangle the English language. We have no rules for it. The way we deliver our stories is changing all the time, but I don’t think there’s any fear for the story. Human beings need stories as much as they need beer and trousers and hats and food and shelter.
TM: You hear early humans likely discovered fire a million years ago. We’ve been telling stories, in some form, around campfires for a million years.
KB: And it won’t stop. In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. But, yeah, I’m a kid of the suburbs and still have strange romantic notions about suburban life and that feeling on summer evenings. It always puzzles me that there isn’t more suburban art and literature.
TM: Maybe people are trying to escape the suburbs psychologically.
KB: Yeah, it’s like they’re so bland they can’t be mythic.
TM: Cheever made them mythic. It’s a liminal place, the hybrid city-country.
KB: There’s some French word that I can’t think of at the moment, where city bleeds into countryside, that edge of town. It’s a kind of nowhere land, with odd tensions from either side pulling. Nothing as eerie as walking around a suburb at 4 a.m. on a summer-night morning with nobody around and just a little bit of wind in the trees and leaves. And falling in love or out of love with some girl, and you’re 17. Those moments stay with you, in the sodium light.
TM: Does that shape your work?
KB: I remember talking once to a bunch of American students. And they were stunned and horrified to learn that Ireland has suburbs. Even though so many of us in Ireland grow up in the suburbs, they almost never show up in Irish literature. Because it doesn’t suit the mythos, which is either the Ulysses of the big city or the John McGahern small towns or the farm and the bleak austerity of the farmland. But Irish suburban life has almost never been done. The working-class cities, Limerick and Cork—that language has never appeared in Irish literature. I tried to bring some of it into City of Bohane. I hate the word resource applied in any way to literature or art, but it is a resource. It’s a very strange, weird, mangled, beautiful, tender, lovely take on English.
TM: You’re obviously besotted by the language, and you work its angles and curves to great effect. I picture the Oxford English Dictionary sinking into a Gaelic bog. But you don’t sacrifice clarity, even in your novel, which is a sustained, successful voice experiment. A high-low style seems to come easily to you, like a tune on the air.
KB: Thinking specifically in terms of the novel, I’ve always been drawn to work that tries to blend the high and the low. Saul Bellow in the fifties, with Augie March, trying to do Chicago street talk but the literary fucking high style as well, and really going for it. Martin Amis in the eighties in London. When I came to write City of Bohane, I had twin ambitions for it. I wanted it to be a grand, visceral entertainment, a real pulpy fucking page-turner, but also a serious language experiment. It was fun to write, and increasingly it seems to me that I should be having fun at the desk. On the very simple equation that if I’m having a good time at my end, the dear, beloved reader is having a good damn time at the far end. A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience. With City of Bohane, I sometimes think to tell the story right it should’ve been a much longer book, but the language was too intense. I think 280 pages is fine, because it’s fucking… It’s a wallop in the face.
TM: Some people can’t take it. Some of us eat it up, the sustained performance on the page. And it’s a first-person narrator. But there can be fatigue.
KB: People either tend to really love it and be evangelical of its cause or go, “Fuck all, this is not for me.” Which is fine. I would always take strong reactions over mild ones. It’s a book you have to read with the ears. You have to listen to it. And you have to do a bit of work at the start, and that’s kind of a difficult area now in novels. I think previously, as readers, we were prepared to give a novel a bit of time. You have a 900-page Russian door-stopper from the 19th century, and you give it a hundred pages, and it’d be fucking torture turning those pages. They’re like lead, you know? But then that magical thing happens where suddenly you’re trapped in the world. You’ve earned it.
TM: It’s the same with Shakespeare. Suddenly you’re in and it flows.
KB: I suspect now the reader won’t give you that much time anymore. It makes it a good time for the short story. I think, increasingly, people give as much time to a book as they will to an art-house movie or an indie film. I have this conversation all the time with my editor in London, and he says, “No, man, literature should be the alternative to all that white noise. It should be a quiet, immersive space where we go to get away from all that stuff.”
TM: A deeper escapism and amusement.
KB: Yeah, and maybe he’s right. Until recently, I hadn’t read the Booker Prize–winning Hilary Mantel novels, the Henry the Eighth stuff, you know? She has what I call “thumb.” You just want to turn the pages and keep going with it.
TM: In your work there seems to be the influence of writers from the American South. Barry Hannah and Charles Portis come to mind. A lot of Southern and Irish writers strike me as Hearers of the Music, profoundly taken by language. It seems that they particularly relish the poetry that can be drawn out of prose. Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
KB: To my shame, I’ve never read Charles Portis. Love Barry Hannah. There is an interesting correlation between Irish and Southern writers. We face similar difficulties, in terms often of the dialogue. You don’t want to over-egg it. But at the same time, people do fucking talk like that. So you have to be true to that as well. I think Hannah gets a beautiful balance.
TM: The dialects seem to have arisen from remoteness and insularity, fed over centuries by religious communalism. Flannery O’Connor wrote — and I once heard Hannah echo this — that the South is “Christ-haunted.” Is it the same for Ireland, with the huge Catholic and smaller Protestant presences?
KB: There’s no doubt. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but there’s Catholic prose and Protestant prose. Flannery O’Connor’s prose is Catholic fucking prose. John Updike’s prose is Protestant fucking prose. And that’s fine. There’s also Jewish prose, which dominated my whole reading staples in my twenties. I wanted to be the next great Jewish writer, which was difficult, as I was a ginger-haired child in Cork, in the south of Ireland. That didn’t work out. Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.
TM: Tristram Shandy.
KB: Yes. I like my literature to be funny, the comic mode, and I think most of my favorite writers at some level are comic writers. Someone like Saul Bellow. Herzog is a novel about a nervous breakdown, a crack-up, and it’s fucking hilarious. Philip Roth writes terrifying novels about all sorts of disintegration and horrible, awful masculine emotions that are deathly funny. I think comedy is the most true human mode. It’s how we get through, through…
TM: The tragicomedy?
KB: For sure. My short stories, a lot of them are very dark, but I think almost always at the end they are comedic.
TM: That’s a great insight, of being Irish and that choosing between Joyce and Beckett. Beckett said Joyce was a synthesizer — put everything in, tried to bring it all together — but that he was an analyzer, and he was trying to take out every fucking thing he could. A reaction against Joyce and that high postmodernism.
KB: Absolutely. What I love about Beckett’s stuff, really, is that he plowed the same kind of stony ground for 50 years. And did him no harm. You can still bring new things all the time. In my own instance, I think the novels are going to be very different. The short stories are in lots of ways. I want to let the story dictate the style.
TM: The story is the master.
KB: Rather than the other way around. Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.” I thought, Fucking heroic, man. And a story is a song, and it’s a tune. It’s a melody, and you follow it along.
TM: Dark Lies the Island is your new collection, your second. The stories are highly atmospheric. Whether you’re mixing despair and humor, delving into evil in disguise, or plying supernatural undercurrents, the particular psychology evoked just infuses the narrative.
KB: I think it’s the most intense prose form. There’s nothing like a fucking good story when you’re in its grip. I love the novel for its looseness, in the way that life is shapeless, but I just love that feeling when you’re in the hands of a really good storyteller and you find yourself sitting up a little straighter and turning down the radio and turning off the computer and chucking the kids out the window and just getting closer to the page. And you’re trapped, line by line. To make it that intense an experience for the reader is fucking difficult. I’m also really interested in the essay. It’s more front-of-the-brain.
TM: And you’re on the line. It’s you. You can’t blame it on a character.
KB: I think fiction is superior. You can’t lie in fiction. Your soul is there, pinned and wriggling on the page. You can lie much easier in nonfiction. Every single sentence in a short story is bearing weight, and for that reason most go wrong on me. Most end up on the floor. I write ten or twelve of the fuckers a year. One or two will get seen by anyone. I have a workroom at home in County Sligo that’s just littered with the corpses and near-corpses of half-dead zombie stories. It’s appalling shit. It’s fucking terrible. But I will always finish them, because I think that’s when you know you’re a pro: when you finish even the bad stuff. Just to get a finished object there.
TM: And to know.
KB: And to know. And I’ll do something else.
TM: Your stories read as deeply felt. Sometimes with the first-person stories, you think, That happened to him.
KB: I do think your best ones come out of your own experience. Everything is feed. Fiction happens in the subconscious, the back of the mind, that place, and I think your life experience has to sit back there for a while before it comes out. I think you have very little control as a writer, often. The decision to write fiction is a kind of a pact you make with your subconscious. You say, “Give me stuff. I’ll be there. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be at my fucking desk. I’ll be waiting for it.”
TM: “I’ll be the vessel.”
KB: Yeah. It’s sitting there. It took me a long time to get there. In my twenties I was writing music reviews, theater reviews, stuff like that, and it was doing fine, making the rent, having a good time out and about… Not getting happy. Knowing there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using that I wanted to use. But it’s difficult when you’re writing sort of journalism stuff all day to find the time and space to write the fiction. I had to get poor. I bought a 12-foot caravan, a little trailer home, and I sat it on a beach in west Cork, and I spent a summer out there writing the next great Jewish-American novel. And it was a fucking monstrosity. But it taught me it has to be your main thing, the thing you do when you get up in the morning. The time especially for first drafts is when I’m barely awake.
TM: Fresh out of the dream state. John Gardner talked about the “vivid and continuous dream.” And a dream is a wild and fuzzy thing.
KB: Writing fiction and dreaming are very close. I won’t even have a cup of coffee when I get up. I’ll have a cup of weak tea. I don’t want to come up from it too quick. I want to stay in that kind of murky, blobby, kind of dream-shapey world and just— I don’t care about the sentences or the sense or anything. I just want to spew down words onto the page. And just slow accumulation. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s very important to me to do something on it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes, to just try and make a daily connection with it. Because if you miss a day, it can suddenly completely start to go away. Writers have always sought ways to procrastinate. Editing and cutting is the enjoyable part.
TM: Bringing it out of the raw, like Michelangelo’s Captives.
KB: It’s the block of stone. Just cut away at it and see what you can get. There is a corollary to that. I think you can cut too much.
TM: The tendency toward the Carveresque, no pun intended. And a lot of that was Gordon Lish.
KB: Yeah. Or you can polish too much, hone too much, and take the original impulse and life force out of a piece.
TM: In your stories, and especially in your novel, place is always a primary force, a character, often sinister or supernatural.
KB: If I have a single, fundamental belief as a writer — and I suppose it’s quite an esoteric one — it’s that human feeling doesn’t just reside in humans but that it settles into our places, and I think very often fiction is about springing that feeling from places. [The recent New Yorker story] “Ox Mountain Death Song” comes from being out on my bike. I go out around the Sligo hills in the fucking drizzle and rain and wind. But it’s nice because your mind kind of unspews, you know?
TM: Woody Allen’s long, hot shower.
KB: For sure, and I was about three, four years going out cycling in the Ox Mountains, which by American standards aren’t mountains at all; they’re fucking hills, you know? But anytime I went, I got this kind of bleak, dark feeling into my bones. And eventually I said, “I’ll try a new method, a new tactic. I’ll go out and I’ll write the story on site.” I went out and I stayed in a cheap hotel in a little beach town in the shadow of the Ox Mountains and wrote a really rough draft in three days and kind of forgot about it for a few months. I’m often writing two stories at the same time, and one of them is kind of an attempt not to write the other one. There’s always a phantom story underneath. But there’s something John Cheever said in his beautiful introduction to his collected stories: stories remind you very much of the time in your life when you wrote them. Of the place, where you were. What I love about him is he’s deeply fucking weird, you know? Those are really strange, eerie, kind of crazy stories.
TM: He’s doing things that others just weren’t doing. You can say Shirley Jackson, a few others here and there, maybe. But, really, “The Swimmer”?
KB: Amazing story.
TM: Nobody was doing anything like that.
KB: Nobody was doing that stuff. I love to read stories that are coming out now and see what’s happening. But I do love to go back, to read the classic stuff. Someone like V.S. Pritchett, in the 20th century, was a hugely famous story writer. He was in The New Yorker five times a year. In Europe he was the most famous British man of letters. And he had one of those weird things where, after his death, in the late nineties, he just faded from view instantly. But you go back and read him and they’re nuts. And they’re all built on talk, on mad, deranged, demotic, provincial UK kind of talk. As much as you should always keep up with what’s happening and who’s pushing things out at the edge, don’t forget these guys. They put lifetimes’ worth of serious talent into developing the short story and bringing it to where it is. And it’s one of our greatest achievements as human beings, the short-story form. I think it’s really sublime when it’s good. I think what unifies the great story writers is that they stick with it throughout their careers. Sometimes you get the guy who comes out with a brilliant debut collection of stories and just goes on and writes novels. I really hate that shit. Keep writing stories. It’s not an apprentice form for the novel. It’s no accident that the very best writers of stories alive are the people who keep writing them all the way through their careers. Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders.
TM: But we want your novels, too. That expansion. Like in City of Bohane, you’ve got small town, big tapestry. The Bohane River divides the city physically and metaphysically. On its way out to sea it seems to leach and drag the wickedness of the long dead out of the boglands of the countryside to poison the city with “the taint.” It feels directly connected to all the great Irish mythology, especially the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic life and death sunk into the earth but fluid and moving.
KB: Those influences feed in subconsciously. Human feeling bleeding into the place. Limerick city is quite a troubled city, quite a violent place, lots of gang feuds. It’s known as Stab City. It’s always had lots of knife crime. Once, when I was a cub reporter in the late eighties, there was a great, since-passed-away local politician, a guy called Jim Kemmy, and I met him downtown one time. We were standing by the River Shannon, which is Ireland’s biggest, longest river, which enters the sea through Limerick, and there’d been some horrendous fucking gang feud in town with about five dead on either side. And I remember saying to him, “What’s wrong with us?” And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s coming in off the river.” And it stuck with me for years and years and years, and the first line of the novel is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The taint of place. I try to escape Ireland in the winter often, and I go to Spain, just for some bit of light and blue skies and get out from under the belly of cloud. And I’m a secret bird-watcher. A twitcher. So I went a couple of times, in southern Spain, in Andalucía, to a town called Ronda. There’s a very famous gorge a couple of thousand feet deep. And it’s famous for its choughs, which are crows with red beaks. Amazing fliers. They fly sheer up and down the face of it. So I went there and was looking, and this fucking dark, black, horrendous feeling coming over me, and I’m going, “What the fuck is it?” And getting out of town. Getting out of Ronda on the next bus. Went back couple years later, same thing, down around the gorge. Started doing some research about it and discovered that in the Spanish Civil War 300 prisoners had been made to jump to their deaths, at gunpoint, at the gorge in Ronda. And I’m certain that some of that feeling, that terror, that fucking primeval human horror, has settled into those stones, and I fucking picked some of it up. My brother is a fisherman, loves to fish for trout in Ireland. He talks about a particular lake that he found himself on once in County Clare. And same thing. “Amazing, beautiful summer night. I’m out fishing in my boat out on the lake. Suddenly, ‘Fuck, get outta here.’ Horrible feeling.” Doing some research after: horrible scenes in the Irish famine. Two hundred people starved to death on the shores of this lake.
TM: And you’ve got to have the antennae to pick it up.
KB: I think we all have the antennae at some level.
TM: Some are more sensitive.
KB: Sometimes you’ll shiver and say, “Get outta Dodge.”
TM: Bad mojo. Can you talk about the risks you took with Bohane? I’m curious if there have been any comparisons to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if only because of the idiomatic invention.
KB: A Clockwork Orange was a hugely important book to me as a teenager. If you go back to it, it’s very much about Britain in the sixties. It’s a projection on the moment when it’s written. It’s about mods and rockers and Brighton Beach. Burgess wrote it when he was living just outside Brighton, and he couldn’t describe that world directly, but he described it brilliantly by doing it at a future remove. In some sense I think City of Bohane is a projection on Irish cities as they are at the moment, when they have over the last 20 years changed unbelievably, for the first time become multicultural places. Lots of new weird, wonderful energies, lots of new dark, dangerous tensions.
TM: Bohane is like a west-of-Ireland western.
KB: It’s a complete western.
TM: It’s very cinematic, and that quite literally plays into the risky and experimental narratorial conceit, a magical first-person omniscient narrator who’s also a character. But not like Vonnegut’s intrusive god-author; it doesn’t come off like that.
KB: I wanted the reader to feel like they were in some awful, horrendous dive bar in a tremendously deranged Irish city in the middle of the 21st century and there’s some crazy old fucking whisky-drunk nut alongside them whispering this demented tall tale into their ears.
TM: And he knows what people are thinking. You believe him.
KB: Yeah, he’s kind of God out there. One of the technical questions was “How much do I show this guy?” I kept him very, very limited. He shows up once or twice. The I word comes in.
TM: It’s a mystery, but I wouldn’t say it’s soft-pedaled. The voice is so strong. But I haven’t noticed anyone else remarking on it. Then we see you win the IMPAC. Obviously, it’s resonating.
KB: That was very cool, winning a big prize.
TM: Can you talk about setting as character and parallel protagonist?
KB: In Bohane in particular, obviously the city is the main character. I guess what it comes out of is when you’ve lived in a city like Limerick or like Cork, you are aware that there is a world out there, outside the city limits, but really it’s just kind of a rumor. It really doesn’t matter. Where you are is the center of the fucking universe. And Bohane is all-encompassing. They refer to anything outside of Bohane as Big Nothin’. It’s that sense that this is the world and this is all that counts. I think that’s familiar to anybody who’s lived or grown up in small cities. They’re just about big enough to be anonymous in, but also they’ve got this kind of weblike, clammy sense of connection to everything. Coincidences can genuinely happen. When people and professors read Dickens now, they say, “Too many coincidences,” right?
TM: But London was a hell of a lot smaller.
KB: London was about 800,000. People would’ve bumped into each other all the time.
TM: So it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina or overwrought orchestration.
KB: I think he was absolutely on the money.
TM: Is Bohane a bit of a mashup of Limerick, where you’re from, and Sligo, where you live now?
KB: Equal parts Limerick, where I lived until I was 20, and Cork, where I moved to and lived until I was 30. The accent I would hear is quite a Cork singsong, quite a melodious accent. I physically see it as Limerick, which is a dark dock town. And there’s west-of-Ireland weather in there. And great, mad renditions of the English language.
TM: About that. Ireland has given us folks considered the greatest writers in, or innovators within, the English language. People think Joyce and Beckett, deathless giants. Yeats. Flann O’Brien. Seamus Heaney. The great Frank O’Connor. And it’s not a very big place. Is it a burden or a source of effulgent pride?
KB: [Laughs] I would never go to my desk in the morning and say, “I must settle down to do some Irish writing here.” One of my great problems with the whole edifice of Irish literature is that it was sometimes quite a hermetic world. The only influences on Irish literature were things that had happened in Irish literature. As if electric light and television and cinema and rock-and-roll and punk and electro and disco had never been invented. I honestly don’t think in nationalistic terms. If you’re positioned in any way in any tradition, it’s better to have good people behind you than fucking twats.
When I wrote an over-the-moon review of Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, here last year, I thought I was letting readers in on a well-kept secret. I thought wrong. The book got acres of good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic – along with a growing army of devoted readers – and it went on to win the IMPAC Dublin Award, one of the world’s richest literary prizes, besting such brand-name authors as Michel Houellebecq and Haruki Murakami.
Now Barry is back with a new collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island, his second. It shares the virtues that made Bohane such an astonishment – prose that rollicks and judders and constantly delights; a keen ear for the spoken language of Barry’s native western Ireland; and above all, at least in the very best stories, a way of lassoing moments of mystery that have the power to transform the lives of Barry’s characters, a motley Irish medley of disturbed young women, devious old spinsters, blocked poets, thugs, boozers, exiles, and tortured civil servants. There is rich music, high humor, and deep blackness on every page.
I believe this collection of 13 stories can be divided into two roughly equal halves. Half of them are not so much fully formed stories as sketches, riffs, slices of life. If this sets them in a minor key, they are nonetheless uniformly compelling. In “Across the Rooftops,” for instance, two young people fail to connect with a first kiss. End of story. In “Wistful England,” a lovelorn Irishman lives in misery in East London with a bunch of alcoholic ruffians until, one boozy night, his old lover reappears, then promptly vanishes. End of story. In “The Mainland Campaign,” an I.R.A. bomber plants a bomb in a guitar case in a London bookstall, then boards a bus with a blonde German girl. End of story.
Doesn’t sound like much, but there are fully lived lives in all of these sketches, and the writing is a seamless marvel. Here’s an Irish heat wave: “It was dogs-dying-in-parked-cars weather.” Here’s the wave of Americans washing up in Berlin in 2005: “Daily, the gauche and Conversed hordes priced out of San Francisco and Brooklyn were arriving, with their positivity, their excellent teeth, and their MFAs. They could be spotted a mile off in the clubs – their clothes were wrong, their hair was appalling and their dancing was just terrible.” (I was boots-on-the-ground in Berlin at the time and, trust me, this nails it.) And here’s the description of an ornament in a van carrying two brothers, Patrick and Tee-J Mullaney, back into their fated, inescapable life of crime: “Mr. McGurk was a plastic leprechaun attached to the dashboard on a spring and he bobbed along comically as the Hitachi sped. How he had ended up being called Mr. McGurk neither of them could remember. Both brothers would do Mr. McGurk’s voice but Tee-J did it brilliant. He did Mr. McGurk as a cranky old farmer who was always giving out. Mr. McGurk was six inches of green plastic but entirely alive. He was made alive by their love for each other.”
And here is an exchange between the title characters of “Ernestine and Kit,” two charming maiden-aunt types who roam the Irish countryside looking for children to snatch. Of course they don’t see themselves as kidnappers or monsters; they’re guardian angels saving children from horrible parents and worse lives. Here’s the chilling way they rationalize their behavior:
“Would they be hair extensions?” Kit wondered as they passed a young blonde pushing a pram along the roadside verge.
“You can bet on it,” Ernestine said. “The way they’re streaked with that silvery-looking, kind of…”
“Cheap-looking,” Kit said.
“A young mother,” Ernestine said.
“Got up like a tuppenny whore,” Kit said.
“The skirt’s barely down past her modesty, are you watching?”
“I am watching. And that horrible, horrible stonewash denim!”
“Where would the whore be headed for, Kit?”
Kit consulted the road map.
“Lechaun is the next place along,” she said. “Only a stretch up the road from here. Her ladyship is headed into a pub, no doubt.”
“Drinking cider with fellas with earrings and tattoos,” Ernestine said.
“In by a pool table. In a dank old back room. Dank!”
“You can only imagine,” said Kit, and she made the sign of the cross.
“A jukebox and beer barrels and cocaine in the toilets. The misfortunate infant left to its own devices.”
There is no way for this sketch to end other than badly. Deep blackness, indeed.
Then there are the fully formed stories, half a dozen small masterpieces. In “Wifey Redux,” a civil servant whose perfect marriage is fading finds himself fretting that his sexy teenage daughter is about to relive the tragic arc of her mother’s life. The story opens with this gem: “This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my faced pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear – this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.” A whole world in a single sentence.
Later, the fretful father describers the type of boy his daughter tends to fall for: “The usual type – so far as it had been established – was black-clad, pale-skinned, basically depressed-looking, given to eyeliner and guitar cases, Columbine types, sniper material, little runts in duster coasts, addicted to their antihistamine inhalers, self-harmers, yadda-yadda, but basically innocent.”
Such music never stops coming, much like that gorgeous oily black river that flowed through Barry’s fictional city of Bohane.
In “Wifey Redux” and the other top-flight stories of this collection – “Fjord of Killary,” “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” “Doctor Sot,” “Dark Lies the Island,” and “Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer” – the lead characters experience something that might be called an epiphany, a moment when the deep mystery of life touches them in surprising and unexpected ways and changes the course of their lives.
Flannery O’Connor, a practicing Roman Catholic, chose to see these critical moments, these epiphanies, through a religious lens. In her non-fiction book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor groped for an understanding of such moments and their importance to fiction:
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that is both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.
O’Connor was discussing her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which an escaped convict and his two sidekicks slaughter a family after they wreck their car. The last to die is the Grandmother, who makes the critical gesture. As O’Connor wrote:
There is a point in this story when such a gesture occurs. The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has merely been prattling on about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.
The climactic scene of the story goes like this:
She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why, you’re one of my babies! You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Things do not turn out well for the grandmother, obviously, yet her gesture was not futile. It not only gave us a classic short story, but it planted something in the Misfit’s heart. As O’Connor put it in Mystery and Manners:
I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story… I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.
I have no idea if Barry is a practicing Catholic like O’Connor, an agnostic, an atheist, or a Hindu. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he has absorbed O’Connor’s lessons and used them in his own way to magnificent advantage. Here is the booziferous title character of “Doctor Sot,” who visits a colony of itinerant Rastafarians on the edge of town to give medical advice, then proceeds to get drunk with them and wreck his car, winding up stranded for the night under a blanket with a beautiful young woman:
But after a time her eyes did close. Doctor Sot slid a hand from beneath the blanket and lightly, very lightly, he laid it against her face. He felt the tiny fires that burned there beneath her skin. Her lashes were unspeakably lovely as they lay closed over her light sleep. If Doctor Sot could draw into his palm these tiny fires and place them with his own, he happily would.
Doctor Sot’s gesture – placing his hand on the young woman’s face and feeling the tiny fires that burn there – is enough to reacquaint him with the mystery and magic of life. It is, in a word, his salvation. Take such moments religiously, or don’t. Either way, you must read this impossibly gifted, unspeakably lovely Irish writer named Kevin Barry.
Kevin Barry has won the lucrative €100,000 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his first novel City of Bohane, capably reviewed in these pages over a year ago by Bill Morris (whose drawing of Barry illustrates the piece). You can also relive this year’s massive longlist and quirky shortlist.