Four Overlooked Books of 2009
Taylor Antrim picks the best fiction ignored by The New York Times—can’t-put-down books about sex and baseball, class bias, lust on the farm, and drug-addicted misfits.
With space for book reviews in newspapers and magazines shrinking ever closer to zilch, odds are depressingly high that worthy novels and books of short stories will slip through unnoticed. That’s the theory, anyway. Believe it or not, there are still a few paid book editors around—at least enough to field a softball team—whose job it is to read widely, to winnow down the published field, and allot space to the most interesting books of the day. The optimist in me wants to say: Pick up any major newspaper—despite dwindling book coverage, it’s probably reviewing more fiction than you can keep up with.
And what if that newspaper is The New York Times? All things being relative, the Times is still a book-review bonanza. Between the Sunday section and the daily reviews, the Times assesses half a dozen or so works of fiction every week. A selective list of more than 300 novels and short-story collections every year? Surely that covers the bases.
Robert Boswell has impressive range: With “Skin Deep” he’s given us what has to be the most erotic two-page story ever written.
Well, I wonder. Maybe I’m too optimistic. An experiment seemed in order: I stacked up 10 novels and collections published within the last four months that The New York Times has (so far) ignored—and started reading. If I wasn’t hooked by page 50, I set the book aside and moved on. Two weeks later, I have my list: four first-rate books, at least one of them ( The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards) as good as any I’ve read in recent memory.
The Slide. Why was this book published in January? Kyle Beachy’s first novel is soaked in the humid atmospherics of summer. College graduate Potter Mays comes home in June to St. Louis, to his parents’ disintegrating marriage, to an untrustworthy best friend, and to a hell of a lot of loneliness. Mays gets a minimum-wage job and tutors the sexy (and underage) girl next door—it’s familiar material, the disorientation of being a young man in between stages of his life. But Beachy has a distinct and very funny voice, and the book’s mood of confused longing sticks with you. The Slide is about heat, baseball, chasing a girl, and making a lot of mistakes, but maybe just maybe living to tell the story. It’s affecting and a little bit strange—and when I was done I vowed to read whatever Beachy writes next.
Security. I’d never read Stephen Amidon before, but I wasn’t surprised to see—once his new novel had gripped me—that the guy’s a seasoned pro. Security (published in February) is Amidon’s seventh novel, a lean, meticulously observed story of a small college town. It races along from the first page: The head of a home-security company receives an alarm from a rich client’s house late at night and drives out to investigate. Meanwhile, the writing instructor at the local college is sleeping with his student, and an alcoholic electrician may or may not have exposed himself to a young girl in town. When there is a sexual assault, it’s not clear who is the culprit. Amidon has a lightly satiric touch that recalls Tom Perrotta, and he deftly reminds us how class bias and gossip can roil the placid surface of a quiet, prosperous town. The novel is crowded with incident, but the pacing is brisk and the intersections of the characters artfully handled. Stuck on a stalled train last week, I sank into Security and the hours whizzed painlessly by.
All the Living. Here’s a moving and graceful first novel that seems built out of almost nothing: A young woman lives on a Kentucky tobacco farm with a man she’s sleeping with, but not sure she loves. Passing the time playing the piano at a nearby church, Aloma is drawn to a handsome preacher, and must choose between them. Typically an impatient reader, I found myself settling easily into this book’s measured, meditative pace. Morgan (whose writing reminded me of the recent Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout) is refreshingly frank about Aloma’s youthful selfishness, her sexual need, but she also composes complex and vivid portraits of the rural landscape. The future looks bleak for Aloma, but lo and behold the novel offers a quietly hopeful ending.
The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. Boswell’s collection, his eighth book of fiction, came out less than a month ago, so it’s possible the Times will give it some recognition. I hope so—though the chances feel slim. This is a story collection after all, published by a small press, about ordinary people faced with ordinary hardships. It also happens to be the best book of fiction I’ve read in a long time. Boswell teaches writing at several MFA programs, but his stories are anything but “well-made.” They have an appealing unruliness, a wicked, almost sociopathic air. Boswell refuses to judge his misfit characters and relates devastating cruelties as simple facts of life; it’s an even-handedness that becomes unsettling in the powerhouse title story, when two members of a house full of drug addicts lazily kill one of their own. Boswell has impressive range: He can do light and funny (“In a Foreign Land”), and knotty and contemplative (“A Walk in Winter”) and with “Skin Deep” he’s given us what has to be the most erotic two-page story ever written. It’s already been a good year for fans of short-story collections. Boswell’s book is just one more reason to celebrate.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.