The most beautiful book of fiction I've read this year is Richard Ford's collection of short stories, "Rock Springs," a sad and quiet set of literary snapshots from one section of America's "voiceless"--poor, sad, unemployed men and women from Montana; a forlorn landscape that's been painted by Ford so that we repeatedly see both the ugliness of men and the elusive beauty of a land that's been ignored or lost, but is still there for those who have either the eyes or the luck to see it.
My nonfiction choice is "And the Band Played On," Randy Shilts' amazing history of the AIDS epidemic. This is the harrowing story of thousands and thousands of people who uselessly died--while public health authorities, the medical profession, blood bank executives and even bathhouse owners in gay communities simply let the whole thing get worse and worse until the epidemic verged on a form of genocide. Lust is the gentlest sin dealt with here. Shilts' marvelously researched tales of greed, vanity, theft, deceit--set against individual examples of great courage and heroism--make this by far the most important work in years.
My wish for the future would be to see more books from the so-called "voiceless" in America. We need to know about the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised--because their lives enrich our own, and because we are just too dumb if we choose not to know about the darker sides of American life.
An editor and publisher long before he became a novelist, Richard Marek not only knows where the cliches lurk, the stereotypes skulk and the pitfalls lie, but he's wonderfully adept at dodging them all in his own book. "Works of Genius" is a wise, witty and altogether original exploration of a semi-classic triangle; the relationship among a writer, an agent and a publisher. In this refreshing switch, the writer is the villain, the agent the knight, and the publisher the besieged lord of the fiefdom.
When Eric Meredith, the first-time author of a dazzlingly brilliant novel, blusters into Tony Silver's office, Tony can hardly believe his good luck. An independent literary agent for a mere 10 weeks, he's pessimistic about his ability to compete with established firms and not at all sure that even unknown writers will entrust their talent to a 30-year-old fledgling who actually answers his own telephone. Meredith is an answered prayer, and Silver cannot do enough for the man. As a result of his inspired efforts, the book shoots to the top of the lists, and Meredith instantly becomes a living legend, exploiting celebrityhood to the hilt, turning his agent and publisher into willing vassals. By the time Tony finds the courage to revolt against the tyrant he's nurtured, considerable havoc has been wrought within an industry once thought to be the purlieu of gentlemen and scholars. Sophisticated, contemporary and realistic, "Works of Genius" was an exception in a year notable for a plethora of murkily symbolic fantasies, some home grown, others non-essential imports by writers with coterie followings abroad.
A truly happy New Year? That would be one in which no more fictional children mysteriously disappeared and all first novelists settled upon their sexual identities, at least tentatively, before they sat down at the word processor. 1988 would mark the end of the Rebecca West revival, the trials of Mrs. Lincoln, and every last missile, forever and ever.
Was the year's best apple better than its best orange? What if you don't like apples? Or if you nurse an aberrant orange craving? What about kumquats?
Fruit salad is the reasonable answer. And in 1987 fiction, it would consist of:
Howard Norman's beautiful and original story about an Arctic growing-up, "The Northern Lights." Philip Roth's "The Counterlife," whose power turns solipsism into a massed chorus. Alice McDermott's "That Night," a flawless story of adolescent illusions and the world's chill. Marianne Wiggins' incandescent short-story collection, "Herself in Love." Toni Morrison's "Beloved," a nightmare about slavery which the reader awakens into . "Paradise," Donald Barthelme's witty and tender parable of eroticism as one more form of modern distance.
Pressed to make a single unreasonable choice, I incline to "Life. A User's Manual" by the late Georges Perec, in a splendid translation from French by David Bellos.
It is a puzzle-palace of a book, a simultaneous narration of the lives, passions and collar-buttons of several dozen residents in a Paris apartment house. The puzzles are elegant and sometimes difficult, the detail is rich and sometimes maddeningly excessive. Bit by bit, there emerges an oddly celebratory recognition that if human lives are transfigured by their stories, these stories in turn are as perishable as the lives are, and the collar-buttons. --Richard Eder