Here’s a selection of fiction that Phoenix reviewers liked this year, in alphabetical order by author.
1. The Wooden Nickel, by William Carpenter (Little, Brown). In aging lobsterman Lucas "Lucky" Lunt, William Carpenter, a literature professor at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, has concocted a character so real, you can smell the chum wafting off his oilskins. Carpenter succeeds grandly in sidestepping stereotype and using an inimitable voice to spin a tale suffused with crabby humor, wry social critique, and, yes, pathos.
2. Palladio, by Jonathan Dee (Doubleday). Like many members of the under-40 crowd, Dee likes to go after all the divisive elements of public communication advertising, television, literature, politics. Unlike his cohort, though, he does it novelistically, indirectly, through character and setting and action, and his story of two victims of the advertising age is as moving as it is intellectually astute.
3. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar Straus Giroux). Ten years after The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides gives us this fat story that spreads its 500-plus pages across a broad expanse of history and geography as told by Calliope/Cal Stephanides, hermaphrodite. As it traces the genetics of Calliope and Cal back through generations, Middlesex encompasses the Turks’ burning of Smyrna in 1922, school desegregation, Vietnam, and Watergatge. But it’s the humorous, affecting story of how Cal comes to accept his difference that makes this book so full of life and motion.
4. The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber (Harcourt). Faber’s chronicle of 19th-century London life engulfs all manner of Dickensian depravity child prostitution, invasive (and misogynistic) medical practices with a level of graphic detail Dickens could only dream of. But rather than sensationalize for its own sake, The Crimson Petal and the White dramatizes a conscious, coherent, novelistic vision, where the solidity of the flesh its rotting, spoiled, luscious corporeality is set in contrast to the mutability of emotion and fate itself.
5. A Multitude of Sins, by Richard Ford (Alfred A. Knopf). The metaphors in Ford’s latest book of stories can make you hoot with disbelief: a dirty, nasty little puppy (in the story "Puppy") that represents everything its middle-class owners have repressed in their relationship; the Grand Canyon as, well, an "Abyss." Ford clearly enjoys being obvious as much as he does twining subtle, nuanced tales of American life (all of them touching in one way or another on adultery) in locales from New Orleans to Toronto.
6. Dear Mr. President, by Gabe Hudson (Alfred A. Knopf). Former Marine Reserve rifleman and Gulf War I vet Hudson spins a set of surreal yarns around said war, with Bush as Fearless Leader, Saddam subbing for Satan, and Allah acting as the enemy’s power supply. Equal parts travesty and tragedy, the book is both febrile and funny, sad and sardonic. Ten years after Operation Desert Storm, Hudson’s work serves as an important reminder that war, no matter how intellectually reasoned or morally justified, turns men into monsters.
7. Notable American Women, by Ben Marcus (Vintage). Structured as a response to frequently asked questions, epistolary screeds, and chronologies, Notable American Women delineates a spectral reality where women turn personal suppression into a war tactic, food visibly controls behavior, and people wear helmet-like "language diapers" to sop up their excess emotions. Marcus’s book threatens to be The World According to Garp on brown acid but turns out to be A Clockwork Orange inverted, interpreted by an all-female Blue Man Group, and enacted in slow motion.
8. Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis (Library of America). Three decades ago, students of 20th-century American literature still read Lewis’s Babbitt along with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as a kind of collective primer. But the vernacular Lewis replicates with such humor and precision the language of boosterism, of the endlessly peppy go-getters of the automobile age now sounds as foreign to our ears as, say, the nursery rhymes of an Edwardian children’s story. This second volume of his entirely remarkable 1920s novels may help rescue his reputation.
9. The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt (Alfred A. Knopf). Ten years after her debut, The Secret History, Tartt returns with another sort-of-murder-mystery, grafting her psychological explorations onto a swift, cinematic story. But instead of a Northeast college town, we’re in Tartt’s native Mississippi, where the naive-collegian protagonist of History has been supplanted by a disturbingly cunning child. For Tartt, little Harriet Cleve Dufresnes is a way of exploring the thin boundary between heroism and cruelty, courage and delusion, purity and vengeance.
10. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (Riverhead). The author of Tipping the Velvet and Affinity again immerses us in a topsy-turvy lesbian demi-monde of Dickensian London. Young orphaned Susan Trinder falls in with a den of pickpockets, then with a kind benefactor known as "The Gentleman," and finally into the affections of his seemingly innocent niece. Waters leads us through 500-odd pages of plot convolutions with a scholarly eye and ear for period detail and a poet’s full-bodied sense of language.