In Cooper’s (Smooth in Meetings, 2014, etc.) novel, an unemployed, middle-aged man with a possible drinking problem must persuade his nonagenarian father to give up driving.
Wriston Wayne, the retired chairman of the Boreal Bancorporation, lives in Florida with his second wife, Cindy. Charlie, his 50-something middle son and a real estate expert, has been unexpectedly laid off from TBF Bank in New York City. While he and his wife, Jane, are visiting Wriston and Cindy, the older man loses control of his Cadillac in the parking garage of their condo building. Charlie fears that a serious accident could be in Wriston’s future, but running errands in the car is one of the few deep pleasures that the old man has left. The dynamic between the father and son is thrown into stark relief: Wriston loves Charlie, but he’s disappointed that he didn’t make it to the top of the heap in his chosen field (“Charlie never emerged from the pack,” he reflects). Charlie, meanwhile, agonizes over whether to stop Wriston from driving, but it’s taken out of his hands when the elderly man’s health declines precipitously in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, Charlie’s late-night wine drinking persists. The focus and interiority of this novel are truly wonderful, and Cooper takes his time exploring what goes through his characters’ minds—principally Charlie’s, but also Wriston’s as he carefully navigates his beloved Caddy from his home to the Publix supermarket. Cooper has the old man note every turn and every lane change; it should be maddeningly boring, but instead, it gives readers a painful appreciation of a person who knows that he must be careful because his freedom is so tenuous. Interestingly, readers later get the same view of Charlie running errands himself as he wrestles with painful issues regarding his dad.
A poignant exploration of the complicated dynamic of fathers and sons.
In Harris’ debut novel, a dutiful son wants to make an honest success of his father’s auto parts business—but the mob may still be pulling strings behind the scenes.
Thirty-something Larry Levine has worked at his dad Big Moe’s Public Auto Parts in New York City since he was in college. All of a sudden, Big Moe decides to retire to Florida, leaving Larry holding a mostly empty bag. His dad not only left with most of the company’s funds—he also left a lot of questions unanswered. For example, Larry wonders about the mob’s connection to Public Parts when a sinister gentleman named Carmine lets Larry know that he’s not his own man but an owned man. Moreover, Larry finds out about the supposedly accidental death of mobster Abe Reles 30 years before; the man fell to his death just as he was about to rat out several other criminals. Does that fact have something to do with why Moe decamped so hastily? What’s in the wind all these years later? Although Larry is desperate for answers, the old man is as cagey as ever. Then Larry meets Ann Riordan, with whom he falls instantly and hopelessly in love—even though he’s a semihappily married man. Despite the turmoil caused by their relationship, Ann is also, as Larry’s executive assistant, the best thing to ever happen to Public Parts. The climax of the book is Larry’s trial after he’s framed for arson, receiving stolen goods, and other crimes. How did he get into such a mess? Eventually, Big Moe—a widower whose health is failing fast—comes clean, to a degree, about what happened way back in 1941.
This is a very impressive debut, and although its nearly 600-page length may be daunting to some, it is, in fact, a brisk and straightforward read. The book doesn’t focus on a huge cast—just Larry, the narrator, trying to reform Public Parts while dealing with his feelings for Ann and hers for him. These are, for the most part, well-rounded characters, precisely because Harris takes his time to develop them. Ann is shown to be competent, enigmatic, and eerily perceptive; Big Moe could have easily been a one-note character, but his love and care for his only son show him to have some depth. Larry’s wife, Laurie, is a study in exasperation, but she’s also there when the chips are down. The dialogue is crackling and sly, and the long trial section, featuring the colorful Bernie “the Attorney” Schwartz, is priceless. The novel also offers an intriguing hybrid of real and fictional characters. Reles, Meyer Lansky, Lepke Buchalter, and others are actual mob figures, but their stories mesh well with those of invented characters, including the Levines; Ann; the perky Dawn Sanders, who helps Ann out around the office; and the vengeful Detective John Mannion. Indeed, by the end of the novel, readers will find that the made-up characters feel like living, breathing people, as well.
An entertaining literary work with realistic characters.
A middle-aged woman considers what constitutes infidelity in this debut novel.
As an award-winning photojournalist, Alex used to travel to war-torn parts of the globe to capture scenes of suffering, hoping to awaken the American public to problems that their government helped create. Now, she’s a 43-year-old mother of two who photographs family portraits in her Westchester, New York, studio. Her lawyer husband, Martin, tells people that she left her previous job because she decided “It was time for something new”; Berks,her fellow photojournalist and former lover, accuses her of selling out in exchange for stultifying suburban bliss. Alex knows that neither description tells the whole story, but she isn’t quite sure how to frame her own life. She doesn’t miss the danger of her past work, but she does miss its exhilaration and sense of purpose. When her glamorous older sister, Maggie,casually mentions that their late father had an affair and that she herself is sleeping with a married man, Alex feels something spark inside her. She resolves to capture the essence of extramarital affairs in photos, starting by taking covert pictures of Maggie and her boyfriend. But the project forces her to confront her motives as a photographer; maybe her new obsession with “cheating,” she thinks, is a function of her compulsion to “chas[e] after other people’s sadness.” A lesser novelist would draw clearer lines between career and motherhood, history and loyalty, desire and morality. Author Amon, however, effortlessly balances such seemingly conflicting truths. She shows how the topic of infidelity shadows Alex’s own marriage as well as her protagonist’s interactions with her siblings and mother. Each conversation carries rich undertones of unspoken emotional baggage; the scenes with Berks are particularly loaded, featuring frustration, romance, comfort, jealousy, and admiration within the span of a few paragraphs. Amon, in clean, polished prose, poses messy questions: How do you enjoy your version of happiness in a world full of misery? And how do you appreciate a person’s love for you when you see that his or her love for someone else is greater?
A layered and insightful exploration of how people seek meaning in careers and relationships.
Bach weaves a stunning debut out of disparate parts, melding settings and genres in this experimental literary novel.
This novel refuses simple description. It follows its lead, Krishawn, who’s contending with a series of progressively worsening brain tumors. But what emerges from his struggle is more than merely a meditation on the meaning of life. It’s a journey from hedonism to psychedelics to sci-fi, trafficking not in fablelike metaphor but in nuanced, even esoteric, dialogue. The novel presents a morass of stories, covering sex, death, and the rest of human experience through its cast and multifarious settings, all of which inform each other, from a mystical mountain-climbing expedition to an ambulatory phallus and beyond, shifting in both content and tone throughout. It’s fitting that Krishawn’s most concerning cancerous growths are pressing on Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, brain structures responsible for speech and language development, respectively, as many stories seem sparked by accidents of language: “Krishawn had always thought it funny how ontology and oncology were separated only by a ‘c.’ ” But again, reading this novel is not only a matter of interpreting the disparate vignettes of the story as the degradations of a dying mind, drug-born hallucinations, or religious experiences pointing to larger universal truths. Rather, they are all of these things and none of them, calling on the reader to find the connections among the elements of this pastiche and make of them both a whole and a sum of parts. Readers will find the novel challenging, but it’s never boring; it discards the willful obfuscation of many experimental novels in favor of a feverish pace and a wildly emotional ride. Individual sections are readable on their own, and while the vocabulary may sometimes be obtuse, the structure and context keep meaning within reach, and readers ultimately feel more like they’re being taught this unfamiliar vernacular than taunted with it.
An incredible debut, as entertaining as it is outlandish, with at least one thing (and most likely many more) for everyone.
Battle’s first novel tells the story of a 1930s Blue Ridge Mountains community whose way of life is threatened by the government.
The novel opens with a letter from Bee Livingston to her 3-year-old daughter, Amelia, intriguingly stating that Amelia has been raised to believe that the wrong man was her father. By way of explanation, Bee shares her life story so that when Amelia is old enough, she can judge what kind of man her biological father was, but she adds a warning: “You ought to know there are some downright ugly secrets in this story about your own kin and your mama to boot.” Bee’s story begins in “the Hollow,” the impoverished Blue Ridge region in Virginia where she was raised. Born Ada Anabelle, she was nicknamed “Bee” by her father, as she was always “buzzing around looking for...trouble.” When she’s still young, her father is killed when a religious snake-handling show goes tragically wrong. The girl is left in the care of her mother, but their relationship is like “oil and water.” As Bee grows older, she’s told that her father was a gambler who took out three mortgages on the family home. The state government, in the shape of the repugnant Mr. Rowler, is poised to seize property in the area. Bee’s mother has plans for her daughter to marry the government man—but Bee has her eyes on Miles, a big-shot government photographer, or perhaps Torch, a boy who grew up with her “on the mountain.”
Battle’s storytelling will draw readers in from the opening page: Why is Bee writing her daughter this letter—and who’s Amelia’s real father? The novel draws, in part, on real-life events; in the 1930s, Blue Ridge neighborhoods were indeed cleared to make way for Shenandoah National Park. Battle spends some time re-creating the atmosphere of the “now-vanished” area. Narrator Bee is a straight talker with an easy wit and a wry opinion on everything. When discussing Torch, for instance, she notes, “We came up like brother and sister but once I sprouted hooters, he got it in his head he wanted things to change.” The author effortlessly captures the timing and tenor of Appalachian speech patterns, and she conjures a world that may be unfamiliar to many, where the Hollow folk sing ballads and pass quart jugs of “white mule” (“that’s what us mountain folks called whiskey”). Readers are also introduced to unusual characters, such as Ruth Evers, described by Bee as a “kind of goddess…of wild and helpless things,” who makes medicine for the community using mountain plants, such as “prince’s pine and deadly nightshade,” and secretly keeps stillborn babies in mason jars. The world that Battle creates is unnerving and enchanting in equal measure and always utterly beguiling. The overall Southern drawl may grate on some, but those who are keen to burrow into the overlooked lives of mountain people will find satisfaction.
A homeless man comes tantalizingly close to his old life and happiness only to question that joy.
In this novel, Wright (The Sky Is Far Away, 2018, etc.) gives readers a homeless, nameless man trying to survive after the mother of all housing bubbles has burst. He is somewhere in Florida, breaking into foreclosed houses in search of food. He has bottomed out: He’s lost his job and his family and even spent a year in prison. He has also lost all hope and wants only to be left alone. Then he comes upon a little girl—as hungry and thirsty as he is—in an abandoned house. Try as he might, he cannot bring himself to desert her. He finds an abandoned cabin and a job with a guy who is scrapping a nearby defunct amusement park, Fun-O-Rama (a wonderful metaphor). The girl, whose name readers finally learn is Jessie, is severely traumatized and mute. Ever so slowly, she begins to trust the man (her first words to him: “Are you Jesus?”). When she falls sick, he gets her to a hospital. She recovers, but now the police are very interested in his relationship with this kid and in his past. Many more things happen, but it is his need for Jessie that drives it all. The ending is artistically risky but truer than the conclusion readers will probably crave. Wright is a flat-out wonderful writer. The prose is crisp (“Unhappy should be a weather forecast like rain or snow”), the details spot-on, and the slow development meticulous. The nameless man—the first-person narrator—is an unforgettable character, always talking about the stories in life, like the “I Work Out and Exercise” and “Never Feed a Stray Animal” tales. He is in love with his bitterness but, try as he might, can’t excise his basic decency. This painful novel delivers heartbreak—but no sentimentality—and consummate thaumaturgy or, in the narrator’s words, “I’m both the magician and the trick.”
This tale of two survivors should move you, cajole you, upset you, and seduce you.
Gabin’s (American Women in Gilded Age London, 2006, etc.) character-driven novel is set in Paris in the 1940s and present day.
Ben Gordon is pushing 30 and itching for real life to begin. He enlists in the good fight against Hitler, gets engaged to Sylvia Stern, a nice girl from the neighborhood, and is off to France, assigned to a military postal unit. He was asked to look up a family in Paris, which is how he meets Simone Daval; her mother, Mira; and her young son, Guy. Simone’s husband and her father, we eventually learn, were lured away and killed in the camps. The Germans are now on the run, but trauma remains. With their shared Jewish heritage—they get by in Yiddish—a strong bond develops between Ben and the Davals. Ben, a real mensch, tries to fill the void as a father figure for Guy and, inevitably, becomes something more than a friend to Simone. But he can’t bring himself to confess that he’s engaged. He is transferred to Frankfurt, and that is the last that the Davals hear from him. In Part 2, Judith Gordon and her brother, Michael, are going through their father’s effects after his funeral when Judith finds Ben’s photographs taken in Paris. Ben married Sylvia and had a good life, but like many veterans, he never talked about his Army days, and Judith is intrigued. She eventually tracks Guy down. He is thrilled to make contact but is adamant about not living in the too-painful past. However, the book explores their atypical connection.
Gabin’s is a quietly powerful book, and Part 2 is especially engaging—a study in long-lasting hurt. She is not a flashy writer—no rococo flights to exploit and cheapen the pain. When Guy writes, “Your letter…brought back so many memories. It was a sorrowful and also a joyful time,” this is closer to Hemingway than to Faulkner—as it should be. Guy is a gracious host but gets angry when Judith presses him too much about the past. He can’t forget the pain of his stunted childhood, the Holocaust, the French collaborators, and his mixed feelings now for Ben, the “father” who abandoned him. But he refuses to wallow in it. Judith captures him perfectly as “this witty, sardonic, damaged man who drinks too much.” The mystery of Ben’s behavior remains. Did he realize that he wasn’t the adventurer he’d hoped to be? Did he use his promise to Sylvia as a cop-out? We only know that he made a comfortable living for the family as an accountant and that he and Sylvia retired to Florida—almost a parody of the dutiful burgher’s life. This, Gabin seems to be saying, is how culture and experience shape a life. Ben perhaps was, in the final analysis, the typical well-meaning but naïve Yank.
A thoughtful delineation of characters and a sensitive study of a culture and an era.