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The Best Books of 2000

The Best Fiction Of 2000

December 03, 2000

American pastoral, American historical, American comical and now, with the appearance of his latest novel "The Human Stain," American tragical--it's time to circumcise the genre of "Jewish American" from Philip Roth's name and declare him, simply, bard supreme of the bad end of the American century past. The bad end, for Roth, is the Clinton end, the Lewinsky end, the blasted heath of an America as infatuated as Malvolio in its propriety and senile as Lear in its forgetfulness. "As a force, propriety is protean, a dominatrix in a thousand disguises, infiltrating, if need be, as civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women's rights, black pride, ethnic allegiance, or emotion-laden Jewish ethical sensitivity. It's not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler or Mao had never happened--it's as though Sinclair Lewis had not happened."

But propriety is only the launching pad for Roth, the Laureate of Rage. The latest of his Zuckerman novels, "The Human Stain" once again uses Roth's aging alter ego, the author Nathan Zuckerman, to embellish the perceived with the color of fiction and reveal a more potent, mythic truth.

HUNTING BADGER

By Tony Hillerman

HarperCollins: 276 pp., $26

"Hunting Badger" is the 13th of Tony Hillerman's mystery novels featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and it is one of his most successful. Hillerman combines evocative descriptions of the rugged landscape and people of the Four Corners area of the Southwest, a sensitive appreciation of Navajo culture torn between tradition and modernism and a lively contemporary plot to make a jaunty and satisfying tale of intrigue, deception and surprise.

The Navajo nation has given Hillerman its Special Friend Award, and the Mystery Writers of America, of which he is a past president, has named him a recipient of its Edgar and Grand Master awards. Why he well deserves both, and why he deserves his readers' thanks for fast-paced mysteries set in an authentic, unusual background, is well illustrated by his skillful and convincing "Hunting Badger."

HUSSEIN

An Entertainment

By Patrick O'Brian

W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $23.95

Patrick O'Brian had a life even before the sea engulfed his imagination and forced him to tell its story. "Hussein" is incontrovertible proof that before O'Brian became O'Brian, he was Rudyard Kipling. Written in 1938, it is a tale set during the British Raj, with all its formality, graciousness and fury. Hussein is a young mahout, or elephant handler, a lifetime profession and also a calling. Done well, the mahout gains not rupees but a powerful ally; a shortcut to the gods, a prop for con jobs (mainly snake charming) and a very big brother to stomp out competing suitors. Hussein falls in love with Sashiya and has his brutal competitor murdered using a fakir's curse. But he could not have done it without Jehangir, his elephant, who also saves him from wild dogs, leopards, wild bees, tigers and snakes. Every orphan should have Jehangir for his family. For many readers, nothing will bring the creatures and myths of childhood back faster than an imaginary journey to gallant India with O'Brian as a guide.

IN AMERICA

By Susan Sontag

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 388 pp., $26

Susan Sontag's new novel is a brilliant and profound investigation into the fate of thought and culture in America. It masquerades as historical fiction, flaunting the stuff of drama and romance. It is something restless, hybrid, disturbing, original. Winner of the 2000 National Book Award for fiction, "In America" is a picaresque fable, a historical tragicomedy. It is a melancholic comedy about the defeat of every kind of integrity. Sontag's stance is one of abject mourning for the tragedies of the past and for what these tragedies have done to our culture and our ideas about art. By means of this acceptance, she has found a way to connect the modern novel to the great monuments of the past, the works of Stendhal, Tolstoy, George Eliot. She embarks upon a journey of construction--the novel is composed as a succession of microstructures--and arrives at a new use of tradition, one that seemed unavailable to the postmodernist sensibility. She is giving us, in fiction, the history of the loss that led to irony and fragmentation, the death of so much that could formerly be called culture, and she bravely attempts a journey beyond that loss. Sontag has managed to structure a paradox--call it hopeful inconsolability or optimistic pessimism--a belief that the destruction of our ideals and our long-lost innocence can still be narrated, that there is still a story to be told about us and about how we came to be the way we are or to see, as the title of one of her past stories has it (borrowing from Anthony Trollope), the seeds of the past in "The Way We Live Now."

IN THE YUCATAN

By Earl Shorris

W.W. Norton: 264 pp., $23.95

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