#tobyreads: Playing Catch-Up With Literary 2013

James McBride

James McBride

Usually, this is the kind of thing I do when the Tournament of Books is announced: a frantic flailing to try to read as many acclaimed books from a given year as humanly possible. This year,I decided to get things underway a little early. Maybe James McBride is the reason: his The Good Lord Bird seems to be racking up award nominations right and left; given that Jason also had kind things to say about it over at Flavorwire, I figured I should give it a read. And from there, a meme began.

So, how is it? First and foremost: I can see why McBride’s novel has been getting rave reviews, and I find myself in agreement with them. You’ve got a historically crucial figure at the center of the book — that’d be John Brown — and you have a wry narrator — that’d be Henry Shackleford, recounting several years of his youth from many decades hence. Henry is living in slavery as the novel opens; he ends up accompanying Brown, who believes him to be a girl. There’s both historical sweep and a deconstruction of historical figures, and McBride pulls off the feat of being both irreverent and acutely aware of the significance of this moment in history. And for all that Brown emerges, in McBride’s telling, as a haunting and towering figure, the novel’s most wrenching stretch occurs at a point when he and Henry are separated.

Also, I had this Sufjan Stevens song running through my head for pretty much the duration of my time reading the book.

As a huge admirer of his first novel, Tinkers, I delved into Paul Harding’s Enon with gusto. This novel depicts the downward spiral of his narrator, Charlie Crosby, following the death of his teenage daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. A short ways into the novel, Crosby lashes out at a wall and breaks his hand; cue a prescription for painkillers; cue a slow descent into addiction. Harding writes beautifully about wrenching events and emotional inadequacy, and there’s a section at the end where the pacing is so perfect I was reminded of a bit of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — in that sense of the prose’s rhythms becoming almost structural, and beautifully so.

I read Alissa Nutting’s Tampa — and a week later, I’m still not sure where I stand on the book. I know an abundance of smart readers who loved it, and almost as many who couldn’t stand it. Mostly, I’m not sure if I should simply be viewing this as the story of an unrepentant sociopath, who’d make the nastiest of Jim Thompson protagonists blush, or if Nutting’s making a larger point about perceptions of youth and beauty, and how warped they can become. (Or, you know, both.) Admittedly, I also have a lot of think-pieces to catch up on, so there’s that.

And sometimes, it helps to close out the week with pulp on a grand scale. Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, which brings together numerous characters on the spectrum from antiheroes to sociopaths and sends them in to compete in an annual bare-knuckle brawl. Bill throws in drug deals, double-crosses, revenge quests, and more; there’s also the premonition of even more apocalyptic violence down the line. It’s fine, brutal stuff. And while I’m at it, I should also nod in the direction of Gary Suarez’s review from earlier in the year. After reading Bill’s earlier collection Crimes in Southern Indiana, I’m glad to see that his distilled style can also work well on the scale of a novel.

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