December 19 - 26, 1 9 9 6
[Arts 1996]
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Fabulous fiction

What follows makes no claim to be anything other than a list of my 10 favorite fictions of this year. It might have been different had I made it to new works by Rushdie, Updike, the German novelist Peter Schneider, or the newly discovered Jules Verne, or if I'd managed to eke out time to read Infinite Jest. My choices, alphabetically by author, are:

The Seven-Year Atomic Make-Over Guide, by Christine Bell (Norton)

Although it's uneven, this collection of stories is shot through with a compassionate toughness, mitigating the clinically observed dreariness that's Raymond Carver's dubious legacy to the American short story. For Bell's protagonists, life is a what-the-hell proposition, a series of detours that have to be negotiated because there's nothing else to do.

[Roddy Doyle]

The Woman Who Walked into Doors, by Roddy Doyle (Viking)

The Irish press, which loved the rough affection of Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy, turned against him with this novel, the story of an alcoholic 39-year-old mother of four doing her damnedest to keep her family from flying apart after kicking out her abusive husband. Writing for the first time in the first person (and in a woman's voice), Doyle has the guts to suggest that his heroine's abuse is the logical outcome of an Irish Catholic culture where power belongs to a chosen few and it's the duty of the unlucky rest to suffer and serve.

[Geoff Dyer]

But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer (North Point Press)

Reading these jazz portraits of Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, and others, you can hear music rising up between the lines. Mixing fact, legend, and his own invention, Geoff Dyer manages to give shape to the evanescence of jazz and the spirit of the men who made it. The writing is as delicate and poetic as the staircase made of cigarette smoke in the old standard "Deep in a Dream." Indelible as both criticism and fiction, this is the novel of the year.

Reader's Block, by David Markson (Dalkey Archive, paperback)

Maddening, compelling, and absolutely one-of-a-kind: in Reader's Block, an aging novelist tries to get his latest book going but can fill pages only with one- and two-sentence bursts of quotations, allusions, and recitations of the lives of other writers, artists, and actors. The result is a chronicle of madness, suicide, drunkenness, and poverty that's both self-pitying and an examination of the self-pity writers are prone to. Too deliberate to be called experimental, the book reads like a suicide note, a suggestion that Markson's tapped-out novelist has only his despair to equal the ghosts of the artists he carries around with him like a curse.

Santa Evita, by Tomas Eloy Martínez (Knopf)

Neither truth nor fiction gets much stranger than the fact-based tale that Argentinean novelist Tomas Eloy Martínez tells in this stunning novel about the posthumous journeys of Eva Perón's corpse. Told in fetid, intoxicating prose, the story is Martínez's way into his country's history and its soul. The deification of Evita is the essence of the idolatrous, fetishistic sexuality at the heart of Catholicism, and an implicit, mournful indictment of a stillborn country hoping for miraculous deliverance.

Carolina Moon, by Jill McCorkle (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

McCorkle combines the near-farcical Southern comedy of Lee Smith's early novels with a lyricism all her own. Her tale of the intersecting lives of a small South Carolina town is itself a demonstration of the way people use stories to make sense of their own lives. A thoroughly entertaining book that deepens emotionally as it goes on.

The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken (Dial Press)

A much-hyped first novel that deserves its praise. McCracken's chaste love story about a small-town librarian and the biggest boy in the world should be a precious conceit. She makes you see her gentle giant James as both a real person and a charmed creature. Not the least of this lovely book's delights is the way McCracken lets her characters surprise you with their sense and generosity of spirit.

Snakebite Sonnet, by Max Phillips (Little, Brown)

Max Phillips's wonderful debut novel, a love story that covers more than 20 years (beginning when the protagonist is 10 and the object of his adoration is 19), is a sensuous, fairy-tale idyll that turns into a heartbreaking story of the yearning between what we desire and the less passionate contentment we find in what we settle for. Off-key at times, it is also blissfully erotic, exulting in the sweat-slick glory of sex. A complete charmer.

Dear George, by Helen Simpson (Minerva, paperback)

This collection of short stories (Simpson's second) won't be published here until next year, but it's readily available at several local booksellers that carry British paperbacks. These 11 stories chart the course of love from first crush to marriages that may or may not have run their course, introducing a new emotional gravity without upsetting the lightness and wit of Simpson's first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed. Simpson, whose writing is both tart and sweet, is one of the few writers working who understands irony as something other than an emotional dodge. You can imagine Colette and Dorothy Parker taking their hats off to her.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (comprehensive edition, Random House)

The first appearance of Twain's complete manuscript (after being discovered in 1990) couldn't be more auspiciously timed. Attacked this past spring by that aptly named literary do-gooder Jane Smiley in a fluff-brained Harper's essay (which, in turn, was taken apart by Justin Kaplan in a superb New York Times Review of Books essay), Twain's novel appeared to make hash of the moralists, prudes, and ninnies it has upset for more than a hundred years. As expressive of this country's soul as any work I can name, the book sings in its every line freedom for American writing, as Brando did for American acting and Elvis for American music.

-- Charles Taylor

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