In this “kaleidoscopic portrait of 1980s D.C.,” Mallon has succeeded where so many have failed: he has produced a genuinely fun book about Washington, D.C. society. Subtitled A Novel of the Reagan Years, the story exuberantly recreates the two terms of the 40th president, from the end of the Cold War to the rise of the AIDS epidemic. Thatcher, Gorbachev, Carter, and a host of other boldfaced names show up, all of them crisply rendered, with one exception: Mallon is wise enough to stay clear of Reagan himself, who here is as bafflingly inaccessible as he was in life, a genial enigma to the end.
Fates and Furies—Lauren Groff
One of the fall’s most acclaimed releases, this National Book Award finalist tells the story of a marriage nearly a quarter century long. Both husband and wife tell us their versions of the partnership, but as the years pass and we learn more and more about this couple, a strange thing happens: the story and the people in it become more, not less, mysterious, and what isn’t said becomes as important as what is.
The Sympathizer—Viet Thanh Nguyen
“I am a spy,” this novel’s protagonist writes, “A sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” The son of a Vietnamese woman and a French colonist Catholic priest, he is a communist sleeper agent, educated in western schools, who returns to his homeland to infiltrate the retinue of a South Vietnamese general in the closing days of the war. The Sympathizer is one of the finest novels of the Vietnam War published in recent years, especially given that it’s one of the very few written from a Vietnamese perspective. But the war is used here to highlight a panoply of other human realties that can’t be pinned to a moment in history—among them the limits of hope, the failure of friendship, and the psychological spaces that exist too deep in the human heart for politics to touch.
A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara
Yanagihara’s novel about a group of four friends who meet at a Massachusetts college and upon graduation move to New York to make their fortunes has been one of the year’s most universally praised books, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize. Its exploration of ambition, friendship, and the lingering and corrosive effects of childhood abuse dovetail neatly with the book’s delineation of a wider world where joy and sorrow cannot be easily separated and where the past is never dead.
Welcome to Braggsville—T. Geronimo Johnson
The academic world has long been an easy punching bag for much of the American public, but rarely has there been a moment where it has seemed so ripe for satire. Enter T. Geronimo Johnson and his biting, clever novel, winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, which cuts to the core of hypocrisy in those ivory towers. Following four Berkeley students bent on a bit of guerrilla theater at a Civil War re-enactment in Georgia, Johnson never runs out of targets for his satirical pen, from Old South apologists to solipsistic students in the grip of self-righteous political correctness.
Fortune Smiles—Adam Johnson
Unless your name is Alice Munro, collections of stories rarely gather the attention a new novel attracts. But when we speak of the prodigally gifted Adam Johnson, the rules change. Having won the Pulitzer Prize for The Orphan Master’s Son, his novel about North Korea, Johnson follows with an equally brilliant collection of six stories—brilliant enough, at least, to capture this year’s National Book Award for fiction. As at ease in the post-Katrina bayous of Louisiana as he is in Korea or post-Cold War Germany, Johnson convinces us that he can write well about, well, anything. Heartbreak and comedy, satire and sorrow—Johnson knows them well, just as well as he knows how to make his stories live in a reader’s head as though they had been there forever.
The Story of the Lost Child—Elena Ferrante
Naples takes center stage in the fourth and final installment of Ferrante’s magisterial series of novels about the lifelong friendship of two Neapolitan women who grow up to occupy very different worlds. But this time around it’s Naples itself that is the true protagonist of the story, a palpable entity so vividly realized on the page that it amounts to a kind of salvation. Through the city itself, Elena, the narrator, is able to piece together some sense of independence in ways big and small, whether it’s in her walks as an adolescent, or in leaving her cheating lover. Inspired by the city that nurtured her, the author has produced some of her best, most mature work.
The Mark and the Void—Paul Murray
A fine successor to the author’s brilliant comedy Skippy Dies, this novel’s premise is simple enough: Paul, a failed novelist turned con artist, convinces a mid-level bank employee named Mark to let himself be shadowed throughout his working day. The idea, according to Paul, is that he will write a novel around Mark, an Everyman whose life is almost colossally tedious. Paul, though, has no intention of writing that novel. He’s there to rob the bank. Set in the post-crash financial climate when Ireland’s Green Tiger economy more closely resembled a scabrous alley cat, the story savagely skewers the solipsistic greed and short-term self-interest that landed everyone in the soup. And while rage may not drive all humor, it certainly powers this dark but unflaggingly funny story, which is written with such furious energy that a satire turns into a page-turner.
John Lennon did own a small island off the west coast of Ireland, and around that odd fact Kevin Barry has constructed an even odder and unfailingly beguiling novel. As Barry tells it, a creatively blocked Lennon escapes to his island in an effort to slip the nets of family, career, the past—everything, in other words, that afflicts a lot of guys hurdling into their forties. But like so many unwitting Englishmen in and out of fiction, Lennon has not counted on the merry anarchism of his Irish hosts. Enough to say that things do not work out as our working class hero intended. But they do play out in ways that make this lyrical, comic novel an unqualified delight.