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The Best Books of 2001

Fiction

December 02, 2001

Superman was invented in Cleveland. The world's first rock concert was staged in the Cleveland Arena, a hockey venue, by deejay Alan Freed in 1951. After race riots in 1966, Carl Stokes became "the first African American to be elected mayor in a major city where white people were the majority. And also the last." These are just a few of the things we learn in Mark Winegardner's sprawling, high-spirited novel about the Ohio metropolis that was America's sixth largest city in 1948, when the book begins, and had fallen to 12th largest by 1969, when it ends. In those two decades, Winegardner ("The Veracruz Blues") juxtaposes a fictional love story--that of Anne O'Connor, rich daughter of a Democratic Party boss, and David Zielinsky, middle-class son of a small-time labor racketeer--with Cleveland's social and political history. "Crooked River Burning" brings Cleveland's past to life on an intimate and a sweeping scale. Winegardner describes weddings, funerals, dances, rallies, ballgames, graduations, parties, elections, moments of domestic warmth and public violence with equal facility. But his main achievement is a narrative voice--not Doctorow's, not Tom Wolfe's (though Wolfe would surely applaud the documentary heft of this novel), but one that's distinctly his own. It's a fast voice, a funny one, almost a stand-up comic's patter, loaded with sarcastic interjections, parenthetical asides, even footnotes, so that Winegardner can be inside his tale, in Anne's or David's mind, in the '50s or '60s, yet speak directly to us at the turn of the millennium. It's a voice that begins, "Here's the deal," and follows through so well on its promise of leveling with us that the 576 pages that ensue don't seem too many at all.

Michael Harris

*

DAYS OF AWE

A Novel

By Achy Obejas

Ballantine: 384 pp., $24.95

*

Two years after the revolution, Cubans began leaving the island on anything that would float--less terrified of Castro's Communism, novelist Achy Obejas intimates in "Days of Awe," than they were of the persistent rumors that an invasion and a terrible war would follow. As Obejas' narrator, Alejandra explains it, Cubans feared that their country would be besieged by "another one of those bloody skirmishes the U.S. periodically undertook in Latin America." With much sadness, but little hesitation, Alejandra's parents shipped out in April of 1961 with their 2-year-old daughter in tow, stopping first in Miami, but finally settling in Chicago, where Lake Michigan provides the family with a bit of watery solace that reminds them of their homeland. As Alejandra grows up, she begins to grasp her parents' passionate attachment to their home country, learning as well about their all-but-dormant Jewish roots. Obejas masterfully links identity with place, language and the erotic life, without ever descending into sentimentality. Her descriptions render her characters' emotional lives with a precision that precludes exotic stereotyping. But the novel yields further delights, as Obejas allows Alejandra to meditate on the cultural and philosophical differences reflected in language. We learn, for example, that in Spanish, it is simply not possible to speak of love for an object with the same word used to speak of human love. This focus on language accounts for one of the novel's most enchanting riches, revealing a capacity to neatly articulate in Spanish the concepts that English and other languages have no words for.

Paula Friedman

*

THE DEATH OF SWEET MISTER

A Novel

By Daniel Woodrell

Marian Wood / G.P. Putnam's Sons:

196 pp., $23.95

*

"You wake up in this here world, my sweet li'l mister, you got to wake up tough. You go out the front door tough of a mornin' and you stay tough til lights out--have you learned that?" This is the maternal advice Glenda Atkins offers her 13-year-old son, Shug, early on in "The Death of Sweet Mister," Daniel Woodrell's fiery, poetic, hair-raising novel. Fat, dreamy and lost, Shug lives with his mom in a small house on the edge of an Ozark Mountains cemetery, or "bone orchard," as he calls it. He spends his days tending the graves and carefully witnessing, practically cringing, at his mother's wanton ways. The story is nervy and yet feels true. It is spare but at the same time comes at a sly slant. It seems to participate in certain tropes and truisms of deep Southern storytelling and yet one turns the pages with a sickening foreboding. Shug and Glenda's downward spiral picks up steam when the necessary stranger comes into their lives, riding a sleek green Thunderbird. For a mother and son living on the side of a Southern cemetery, deliverance doesn't really figure in the equation. After all, as Shug says, "every window we had opened onto a vista of tombstones.... I believe dusks and dawns spent staring out that window shaded me ever more towards no-good and lonely."

Bret Israel

*

THE DEATH OF VISHNU

A Novel

By Manil Suri

W.W. Norton: 300 pp., $24.95

*

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