Wednesday, November 14, 2012

National Book Award: The 2012 Fiction Winner Is...

Tonight the National Book Award for Fiction will be announced -- and for the first time in my life, I have read the five finalists:  Louise Erdrich, Junot Diaz, Ben Fountain, Dave Eggers, and Kevin Powers.  That each book is beautifully written may come as no surprise, but I'd like to handicap the horse race by offering a few quick observations about the books and their authors.  My comments will come in the order in which I read the books.

Dave Eggers can do no wrong.  He's sort of my idol as a writer and a person.  He is not only an extra-ordinarily ambitious writer , but also one of the most socially conscious human beings on the planet.  I've read nearly everything he has written -- from his spectacular debut memoir, A Hearthreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to his brilliant novel What Is the What to his journalistic nonfiction book set during Hurricane Katrina, Zeitoun.

Dave Eggers increasingly writes with a Hemingwayesque spareness, and many have praised his restraint and control.  (The opposite qualities -- exuberant excess and humor -- are the qualities that he was first known for).  This book is amazingly controlled and the plot reads a production of Beckett's Godot (a Beckett quote serves as the epigraph) in the service of a lament on the subject of globalization and the loss of American manufacturing might.  It is another major achievement for Eggers but at times the plotting feels studied:  the main character worked for the Chicago-based Schwinn bike company, and Eggers offers proof he has researched that bike factory enough to offer the requisite details necessary for verisimilitude.  I sort of miss the pyrotechnics and humor Eggers is capable of writing as well.  So, while this book is utterly absorbing and shows an increasingly mature prose style, I can't say it is my favorite book of the year.

Kevin Powers is a phenom, a military veteran and a poet.  His combat experience and his lyrical language are both on full display throughout this extra-ordinary debut novel.  It's hard for me to imagine a book this good could be a first novel.  Several of the chapters work as discreet stories that I intend to use in my writing classes and my American Studies classes.  Many scenes have haunted me since reading this book, but I will focus on one.  Soldiers come to the sad realization that they are trying to retake the same hill they have taken before -- at a tremendous cost the two previous years.
The platoon leader sardonically says it will be an annual tradition like football games between Michigan and Ohio State.  The futility of the enterprise -- if not the war -- is unbelievably sad.

Can I be misanthrope enough to point out that the book feels slightly over-written at times?  Yes.  Powers occasionally favors heavy abstractions that force the reader to concentrate on the language of the prose poem that is the novel at the expense of the characters ("a calculus for what goes ungrieved," or "the echo of some morbid geometry").  This is a dazzling debut novel but, I would not vote for this book to win the award.

Junot Diaz is all-world everything these days.  His magnificent most recent book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize and he won a McArthur genius award earlier this year.  The guy can do no wrong.  This book is the only collection of stories in the field and some stories are more successful than others.  I especially liked the stories Invierno and Alma, two pieces that feature the return of his character Yunior, and that both deal with the idea of immigration and class in the "great melting pot" of New York.  This is not a fair complaint, perhaps, but not every story is wholly successful.  Plus, Diaz has won too much already.  He, like the two gentlemen above, is a prodigy -- and perhaps out of jealousy I can't give him the award either.

Louise Erdrich is the only woman in the field and the only native American writer.  Contrary to what the Huff Post reported today (in a bizarrely uninformed piece on the awards), Erdrich is hardly a "middle-weight" author.  In fact, I think she has been one of the most brilliant and original writers over the last 25 years, creating a magnificent literary edifice that makes her a worthy successor to Faulkner.  This book is not one of her most dazzling efforts, yet it is beautifully and poetically written from the point of view of a young boy who recounts events of his youth from his older, wiser perspective as a mature man.  Is it too short-sighted to say is smacks of young adult literature (another genre Erdrich excels at)? The book is moving and "relatively straight" for her (it offers a unified voice rather than a chorus of narrators that she employs in many other books).  It perhaps echoes To Kill a Mockingbird most of all, but this story of a search for justice is even more personal (the narrator's mother is the victim) and it is certainly more complicated by the the fact that it is set on a reservation.  It is a truly fine book, and one I believe will be taught in schools, but I would not vote for this one either.

Ben Fountain gets my vote.  This book is a daring feat, taking place over a single day:  the end of a sham "victory tour" in which soldiers are treated as pawns in a public relations game by bigwigs (President Bush and Dallas Cowboys "royalty").  Daring, too, is the black comedy, often laced with acid, that pervades nearly every sentence.  Last:  Fountain is over 50 and this is his debut novel.  At last:   a great writer who is not a prodigy!  So, I'd give this one to Fountain.

Let's see if this prediction worked out. 

This year, every finalist is truly deserving, but the prize and the prestige can be life-changing in a writer's career, and none of these writers would receive a bigger boost than Fountain.

Since this blog is concerned with education, I'd also like to add that each of the finalists' books would work well in schools, especially since they each deal with pressing contemporary issues:  war, poverty, justice, globalization, race,  and gender. 

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