Best Debut Novels of Fall 2011

Eight fresh debut novels—from the ultimate new baseball novel to gritty Midwestern fiction to a novel set in Rwanda—you must read. By Robert Birnbaum.

Forget Stephen King and Umberto Eco and other big names, here are eight fresh debut novels—from the ultimate new baseball novel to gritty Midwestern fiction to a novel set in Rwanda—you must read. By Robert Birnbaum.

As the fall kicks off, you know all about the major titles coming out but you are probably on the prowl for something new, fresh, exciting. Here are some books by authors who are, for the time being, off the beaten track.


Robert Birnbaum web-journal is OurManinBoston. He is also roving editor at Identitytheory  and contributing editor at The Morning News. He begins countless books and manages to complete close to 200 every year. He lives in suburban Boston with Beny his black dog.

You Deserve Nothing
By Alexander Maksik

Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate Alexander Maksik offers as his debut novel set in Paris, a tale taut with the tensions of moral complexity and carnal temptation. Which means there is unruly sex and literary dialogue and cogitation.

William Silver teaches at a private school in Paris catering to, what only a few years ago was referred to as the jet set (sons and daughters of dictators and their oligarchical cronies). He is a brilliant but unorthodox mentor, gaining both the devotion of his students and the concerned attention of his colleagues. He relies on authors as varied as Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Jean Paul Sartre, John Keats, and William Shakespeare to illuminate discussions of living by a moral compass. Havoc ensues when Silver is overcome by the hyper-sensuality of the City of Light.

You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions), told through the eyes of Silver and two students, Gilad and Marie, is the enduring story of the clash of the personal moral codes we mouth and the private and hidden imperatives that compel us. Alexander Maksik depicts it fearlessly—and brilliantly, with graceful exactitude.

We The Animals
By Justin Torres

We The Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), debut novel by yet another [Iowa] Writer’s Workshop graduate, Justin Torres, compresses a fierce, well-crafted coming of age story into a slender (125 pages) volume. Peopled by a Puerto Rican father, white mother, and three brothers, it is an intense narrative told, for the most part, in third person plural (the three brothers) by an unnamed narrator, a stylistic touch that fiercely animates his transition from the enveloping centrality of his riotous family to his development as an independent individual.

Justin Torres’s biography is as compelling as this, his first novel, but he is not telling his story. Yet he writes so convincingly that his brothers believe some of the book’s incidents are real—he has to remind them the book is made up. It is a verisimilitude that overcomes layers of indifference that build up in adulthood with a sweetly, honest and authentic prose. We The Animals is an enthralling novel. It may yet be unforgettable.

The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach

Given the centrality of baseball in the lives of American writers, baseball fiction while, not commonplace, has its fair share of accomplished novels (everyone, of course, has their own list)—The Natural by Bernard Malamud, Robert Coover ‘s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor, Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, The Great American Novel by Philip Roth, Percival Everett’s Suder, Michel Chabon’s Summerland, and Tom Grimes's Season's End.

Chad Harbach, whose day job is founding editor of the well-regarded literary journal n +1, debuts as a novelist with The Art of Fielding (Little Brown) a sure-handed drama of five lives acted out against the fortunes of a small midwestern college's baseball team and its star shortstop, Henry Skrimshander. On the eve of setting one of those almost impossible records (eg consecutive errorless games, 3000 hits, 600 home runs, hits in 56 consecutive games) Henry suddenly loses his mojo and 5 people’s lives are capsized. Their struggles to gain equilibrium usher forth a good-natured and humane narrative rendered with a graceful intelligence.

Bin Laden’s Bald Spot & Other Stories
By Brian Doyle (Red Hen Press)

Lake Oswego, Oregon’s favorite son, writer Brian Doyle, has published his 11th book and his first novel: Mink River. Though quite extraordinarily wonderful, the novel failed to place his name on the lips of literati in-the-know—which is, of course, nothing new. His new collection of 25 short, short stories traverses a rollicking world of peculiar characters (there is bin Laden’s barber and a near-death Joseph Kennedy and Cardinal Bernard Law) propelled headlong into bizarre and oblique situations. Book-ended by stories told by bin Laden’s barber, Doyle’s storytelling terrain is as expansive as that of short-fiction maestro Jim Shepard, who is writing some of the best stories in America today. Given the narratives' abbreviated length, one might mistake Doyle’s stories for literary bagatelles—yet there is a potent resonance, signaling a heft and power that makes them unforgettable (none second to “Pinching Bernie,” a story of coming to terms with the patron saint of child molesters, Bernard Law). Brian Doyle is a writer to be ignored at your own peril.

Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories
By Frank Bill

The venerable publishing house premieres a new paperback imprint FSG Originals with Crimes in Southern Indiana (Farrar Straus Giroux), an inaugural story collection by Frank Bill, who happens to live and work in the title’s geographyCoydon, Indiana— a terrain most likely unfamiliar to book reviewers. The hard- scrabble realism of these 17 stories will bring to mind the Ozark writer Daniel Woodrell and shades of Cormac McCarthy and Dorothy Allison—offering a view of American lives and mores that may as well be from a different planet. Meth labs, dogfighting, rampant incest, and child abuse, hard-core bare-knuckle fisticuffs and lethal violence at every turn. Rural idyll this is not—but it is as riveting as anything you may read in the near term.

The Funny Man
By John Warner

McSweeney’s editor John Warner’s first novel The Funny Man (Soho) is an illuminating satire, reprising the classic and unresolved paradox of the profoundly serious grounding of the comedic enterprise (as exemplified in the opera Pagliacci and Smokey Robinson’s classic Tears of a Clown) with the laughs produced by the clown’s effort—the old laughing on the outside and crying on the inside.

In Warner’s telling, the unnamed comedian muddles along, nursing his aspirations, working the small club circuit. Until the day he comes up with a shtick, the gimmick which propels him into headliner status and all the perks that accompany his new celebrity stature. The gimmick—he performs with his fist in his mouth to the wrist. Which, naturally, he tires of well before his audience. As the tale begins, the funny man is at a critical juncture—on trial for shooting an unarmed man six times, career in a downturn, deserted by his family, and contemplating the possibility (and reality) of love with an unnamed celebrity.

Warner’s Funny Man is a sharply focused lampoon of the escalating absurdity of the newest virulent strains of celebrity culture—as the story’s funny man straddles a deeply conflicted persona reminding us that comedy is after all, no joke.

Running the Rift 
By Naomi Benaron 
(Algonquin Books)

While numerous credible (and excellent) books have been written about east Africa’s genocides—An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina, Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families by Phillip Gourewitch, and Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, I am not aware of any novels that have tried to tell of the horrors of the tribal animus and rampant slaughter that took place in Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda in the late 20th century. Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift accomplishes that, not to mention is an auspicious debut, having won The Bellwether Prize awarded biennially by Barbara Kingsolver, for an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice. Having worked extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda, Benaron clearly acquired a very lucid sense of her characters' lives and of the horrors they endured. Her story tells, with compelling clarity, of Rwandan Tutsi youth, Jean Patrick Nkuba—who dreams of becoming Rwanda’s first Olympic medalist. It's a dream he must postpone for more than a decade as the internecine savagery, Hutu vs.Tutsi, slaughters millions and derails the lives of countless others. While it would be counterintuitive to pronounce this a winning, feel-good story, there is something to be said for hope restored. And Naomi Benaron’s characters say it well.

Busy Monsters
By William Giraldi

Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Voltaire’s Candide, and Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions comprise the club of picaresque that William Giraldi’s lively Busy Monsters aspires to join. It's the tale of writer Charles Homar’s (that should tip you off) quest to regain the love of his inamorata, the squid-obsessed Gillian. The story opens with his trip to Virginia to kill his girl’s scorned State Trooper ex-lover (who suffers a different, deadly fate) and moves on to expeditions searching for Big Foot, encounters with a Filipino midget posing as a space-aliens expert, and a run-in with a crazed professional bodybuilder complete with his own Asiatic sex slaves. Add Giraldi’s bold, propulsive prose and hilarious, thought-inducing cultural references and you have a compelling work of literary merrymaking.