1970 – Jean Stafford, The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford


Of the 30 stories in this collection, written between 1944 and 1968, 18 first appeared in The New Yorker, which is no surprise: Stafford writes mannered tales about the empty, trivial lives of society ingenues, mavens and doyennes in New York, Boston and Europe. Though she sometimes tries to observe them with a fragile air of judgment, you sense she really loves the élite culture among which they circulate. (Stafford is prone to using foreign mots and phrases when English would do just fine.) If she intends her writing to be caustic or satirical, then it’s very, very subtle.

The collection’s best pieces – which concern characters who are less pretentious, and thus more sympathetic – appear in the section entitled Cowboys and Indians, and Magic Mountains, which contains the nicest story, In the Zoo, a first-person, present-tense, quietly moving reminiscence about two sisters. (The other sections are The Innocents Abroad, Manhattan Island, and The Bostonians, and Other Manifestations of the American Scene.)

Nothing much happens in most of Stafford’s stories, and her characters merely flutter about their worlds of privilege, which are cast over with an unspoken sadness, loneliness, isolation and emptiness. Her descriptions, however – of people, rooms, objects – are lush, evocative, and very occasionally witty. “Ramona Dunn was fat to the point of parody,” Stafford writes in The Echo and the Nemesis. “Her face was rather pretty, but her features were so small that it was all but lost in the billowing surroundings, and it was covered by a thin, fair skin that was subject to disfiguring affectations, now hives, now eczema, now impetigo, and the whole was framed by fine, pale hair that was abused once a week by a Friseur who baked it with an iron into dozens of horrid little snails.” Caution: Stafford has quite a vocabulary, so keep your OED nearby, or you may find yourself knee deep. Today’s word: batrachian, as in “a batrachian Yale man.”

1972 – Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose


Lyman Ward, a retired history professor, is now an amputee in a wheelchair living in the 19th Century house where his grandparents once lived. Using his surroundings to fuel his imagination, he’s dictating a personal history book on the pioneer lives of his grandmother (an artist/writer) and grandfather (an engineer and entrepreneur), who moved from New York in the 1870s. His son, a callow, Berkeley-educated intellectual, thinks the past is anything that happened since 1960. Angle of Repose is as much an old writer’s vaguely intolerant lament about the changing times – he prefers the 19th Century, “where the problems and the people are less messy,” and says of a ’60s radical, “his mouth is full of ecology, his head is full of fumes” – as it is a loving tale of a pioneer woman whose life ultimately turns on sad twists of fate, despite her considerable talent as a writer and her strong-willed character in a world that doesn’t yet fully permit such a thing in a woman.

Lyman moves back and forth – gently, playfully and intimately – between his roles as historian and family chronicler, interrupting the past for the story of his own present. He taunts his ancestors now and then for things they said or did (he has many letters from their time), and ultimately he’s more of a novelist than historian because he includes details he couldn’t possibly have known.

1973 – Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter

Laurel Hand, a successful, independent, middle-aged woman, comes home to the South from her job in Chicago when her father, Judge Clinton McKelva, age 71, needs surgery. He dies – and Laurel spends the next week in the Mississippi town where she grew up, contemplating moments from her life and sharing space in her childhood home with her father’s stupid, selfish, tactless, 40ish second-wife. Perhaps Welty’s gallery of noisy characters and cultural cliches has more resonance in the South. But I found this novel to be dull, superficial and badly written, with situations that went on and on. It feels like the book should have been a short story rather than a novel (it first appeared, in shorter form, in The New Yorker). I think this was a Pulitzer Prize awarded for a life’s work, and not for this particular book.

1975 – Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels


Gen. Robert Edward Lee does not own slaves or believe in slavery, but he believes that the Negro, “in the present stage of his development,” cannot be considered equal to a white man. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet “is one of the first of the new soldiers, the cold-eyed men who have sensed the birth of the new war machine.” Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an idealistic young teacher at Bowdoin College in Maine, opposes both slavery and the Southern attempt to bring “the curse of old European nobility” to American soil. Through their eyes (and a few others as well), Shaara tells a tense, intimate story of the Confederate army’s invasion of Pennsylvania and the three-day battle at Gettysburg, where Lee had hoped to break the Union army – and then present President Lincoln with President Jefferson Davis’ letter offering peace.

Shaara drew heavily upon the letters and diaries of his protagonists to reconstruct them. But theirs was “a naive and sentimental time, and men spoke in windy phrases.” Thus he has “updated some of the words so that the religiosity and naiveté of the time, which was genuine, would not seem too quaint to the modern ear.” This is a powerful historical novel: Rich in its detail, palpable in its excitement, horrifying in its images of war, thoughtful and balanced in its portrayal of the values and sentiments that compelled each side. You Are There.

1976 – Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift

“Humboldt, that grand erratic handsome person with the wide blond face, that charming fluent deeply worried man to whom I was so attached, passionately lived out the theme of Success. Naturally he died a Failure.” So writes Charlie Citrine about Von Humboldt Fleisher, whose first book of “pure, musical, radiant, humane” ballads in the 1930s was a big success that even pleased the “goy critics,” and who’s career as a noted poet slid downward for years after that, leaving Humboldt embittered, and thus making Charlie – who would win a Pulitzer for his own writing – the frequent object of his friend and mentor’s verbal abuse. Bellow’s novel is dense and philosophical, but also witty, spirited and sad. It goes back and forth between New York and Chicago, between the dead Humboldt’s past and the aging Charlie’s present, vividly chronicling urban intellectual America at mid-century and exploring two literary lives that intersected – and profoundly influenced one another – despite the differences in ages, cultures and outlooks of the two men.

1978 – James Alan McPherson, Elbow Room

John Butler is an old-fashioned barber who refuses to do Afros and an old-fashioned preacher whose dwindling flock wants more flash. Willie Davis is a would-be gangster who backs down when he sees the barrel of a shotgun. Gweneth Lawson, age 10, unwittingly turns a shy smitten classmate on to country music at the May Fair.

McPherson tells 12 stories about black Americans from all regions of the country and with all sorts of backgrounds and accomplishments. His writing is breezy and sharp, his storytelling simple and enlightening. The title story of this fine little book is a quirky paean to multiculturalism, and McPherson’s views on being black in America aregenerally upbeat without being dogmatic or overtly political.


1979 – John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever

The first two stories in this collection, “Goodbye, My Brother,” and “The Common Day,” adroitly appoint the Cheever milieu: New Yorkers with summer homes in New England, swims in the ocean and cruises on sailboats, all-night parties where you end up in the pool, ice crushers and Persian rugs, career servants (often foreign) “reared in narrow and sunless bedrooms” whose souls “have grown docile and bleak,” siblings who bond by competing over backgammon, alcoholic mothers who are “frivolous, mischievous, destructive and overly strong,” and who retreat into a glass of gin at the first sign of conflict. The tension mostly remains beneath the surface because to bring it forth would not be decorous. You don’t know whether to loathe these people or pity them. Neither, at times, does Cheever – whose metaphors are obvious, even naked. But he vivifies this world so well that the symbolism seems a part of his almost surreal landscape.

Other key tales in this comprehensive collection, which contains 61 stories written over 32 years: “The Sorrows of Gin,” seen through the eyes of a fourth grader who watches her idle rich parents and their friends drink too much and talk about nothing; “The Worm in the Apple,” a swift, sardonic allegory about a couple who lives “happily, happily, happily, happily” for years and years, waiting for something to poison their good fortune; “The Music Teacher,” a black comedy about a wife who burns the evening meal in an act of rebellion against her dreary, comfortable life, and her husband, who retreats into piano lessons with a knuckle-rapping old crone who seems to know why her married male clients want so desperately to learn her monotonous, spouse-annoying scales; “The Swimmer,” an eerie tale of a man (Burt Lancaster in the excellent film version) who journeys home on Sunday morning by swimming the length of the pools of all the people, hung over from the night before, in his horsy Connecticut neighborhood; and “The World of Apples,” a mature, melancholy, almost ethereal tale of a distinguished American poet, nearing the end of his life and living in Italy, who has won everything but the Nobel Prize, and who wonders why he has not.

1980 – Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song


Gary Gilmore died on Jan. 17, 1977, before a Utah firing squad, less than six months after he received the death penalty for two robbery/murders. Mailer has written a sad, complex and suspenseful nonfiction novel about a man who became a cultural touchstone in the debate over capital punishment. (Mailer also won a Pulitzer in 1969 for a work of pure nonfiction, The Armies of the Night.) In a startlingly calm tone, Mailer paints myriad little portraits of How We Live, using the precision of documentary and the sensation of an intimate conversation or a series of personal recollections. His detail is exhaustive – and at times exhausting – as he strikes a keen balance between the mundane and the prophetic, never overtly foreshadowing what’s to come, but recounting events that can’t help but make you shudder with ironic recognition. He’s amazingly fair to all of his characters, showing each to be fully human, which is a blessing and a curse for all of them.

Part two of the novel, “Eastern Voices,” revolves around the battle for financial rights to Gary’s story, his own efforts to take his punishment like a man, and the movement to prevent his execution despite his insistence that the sentence be carried out. But part one, “Western Voices,” takes place in the homes, bars and bedrooms of Utah, where Gary – an insightful, amazingly well-read sociopath – lived among a culture of people who usually found themselves married-with-children while still teen-agers, and who could not escape the chaos and frustration of their dead-end lives. “She knew what it was like to be in prison,” Mailer writes, getting inside the head of Gary’s girlfriend, Nicole. “Felt as if she had been there too. Prison was wanting to breathe when somebody else had a finger up your nose. Soon as they took it out, the air got you crazy. Prison was being married too young and having kids.”

1981 – John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces


The endless, torturous, darkly comic saga of Ignatius P. Reilly, a 30-year-old Mama’s boy who thinks himself the genius of the world, and who surrounds himself with the largest gallery of pathetic losers ever imagined by an author. Toole’s mother published this book more than a decade after her son’s suicide, thanks to the intervention and support of Walker Percy, and even then only by a university press. I think you would sense this book to be the work of a disturbed psyche even without knowing the author’s history. I found it to be unreadable – the same sick delusional joke over and over for more than 400 pages. You can admire its prose and its persistence, but I don’t think it’s really a very good book.

1982 – John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is serene in his middle age: He co-owns a Toyota dealership with his wife and mother-in-law, and he’s making tons of money selling fuel-efficient cars in the midst of a gas shortage. The times are changing – General Mills now sells hippie health foods – but Rabbit still looks at faded newspaper clippings of his days as a high school basketball hero days, mulling over the past and going to Rotary Club meetings with his old teammates. This is the third of Updike’s four Rabbit novels and the first of two to win the Pulitzer: It’s 1981, and Rabbit feels alternately content with and confined by his life as both he and his ambling son face similar milestones of responsibility. Updike tells another useful story about Modern Life, although by now it seems like he might have condensed this and his second Pulitzer Prize book, Rabbit at Rest (1991), into one.

1983 – Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Celie, an abused black girl, becomes a self-confident woman in the course of her extraordinary lifetime. A moving and challenging novel, written in dialect, that’s unlike any other. The entire narrative is epistolary, with many of the letters being written by Celie to God because there’s nobody else she can tell about the horrors of her life. It’s also the first Pulitzer Prize novel to deal sensitively and positively with lesbian themes. The movie, though well-meaning, is little more than a slight shadow of Walker’s complex book.

1984 – William Kennedy, Ironweed

Set in the late ’30s, it’s the story of two homeless people – a man and a woman – who reflect upon the past and struggle with the present. Francis Phelan, a former ball player who’s now a wander and an alcoholic, has hit rock bottom; Helen Archer, a Vassar graduate and former singer, is now a skeleton of her beautiful promising younger self. Kennedy’s delicate novel has a dreamlike quality that transcends its social issues and sad turn of events.

1985 – Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs


Two American academics in London: Virginia “Vinnie” Miner, 54, plain-looking and gloriously self-pitying, is conducting research in her field of children’s literature; and Fred Turner, 29, classically handsome, is writing a book on the author John Gay. Vinnie has an affair with a dull but likable American businessman, and Fred carries on with a popular middle-aged British TV actress known for her roles in BBC romantic sagas. Lurie at once presents her characters and dissects them as if she were writing a sort of popular scholarly sociological thesis on them. The result is often amusing, occasionally witty and once in a while touching, although the book ultimately feels like a sort of literary romance novel – or, more likely, a subtle sendup-cum-embrace of the genre. A footnote: Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln almost won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The three-member committee selecting the Fiction prize unanimously chose the book, but the Pulitzer’s general committee rejected the recommendation – surely not the first time such a thing has happened, although rarely does it come to light.

1986 – Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

In the parched, sleepy south Texas frontier town of Lonesome Dove, you’d best not shoot a rattlesnake if you find one in the corner of your home: Everyone in town will hear the gunshot and figure it’s either Comanches or Mexicans, and someone might just “run out onto the street and shoot a Mexican or two, to be on the safe side.” This Old West yarn, doused with whimsical humor and sprinkled with pigs, revolves around the surly-cum-good-natured Augustus McCrae, a former Tennessean who runs the Hat Creek Cattle Company with his deceptively diminutive partner, Woodrow Call, a native Scotsman. Their lazy life in Texas changes when they decide to move their cattle to Montana, encountering many adventures along the way. McMurtry’s big cast of character – cattlemen, businessmen, old geezers, young whelps, “sporting girls,” bandits, Indians – and his rambling story make Lonesome Dove one of the longest Pulitzer Prize novels ever – and the one with the most chapters (102). You have to admire a book that keeps so many people, places and events in line . And though it’s probably more a work of romantic pioneer spirit than historical fiction, it’s detailed, lively and fun to read.

1987 – Peter Taylor, A Summons to Memphis

When a retired, 81-year-old Memphis attorney/widower decides to remarry, his two daughters – unmarried, in their 50s, and successful businesswomen – place worried phone calls to their brother, Phillip, a 49-year-old book editor in New York City. They summon him home to stop this horrible thing from happening, and he uses the occasion to recall the story of his family. This was Taylor’s first novel in almost 40 years, yet it doesn’t feel like something so long in the making. The story is entirely “told,” with almost no dialogue, thus it has no immediacy – it feels like it’s all over and done with. (Phillip meets Gertrude Stein in Paris during the war, but the scene lasts for only three scant sentences.) Nonetheless, at times Taylor’s novel is quietly moving, and it sketches an interesting mid-century portrait of genteel, emotionally reserved (repressed?) life in the Upper South.

1988 – Toni Morrison, Beloved


It’s 1873 in Cincinnati, and Sethe, a former slave, lives at 124 Bluestone Road with her 18-year-old daughter Denver – and with the sad, mischievous, occasionally malevolent ghost of Sethe’s long-dead 2-year-old daughter. Then a mysterious young woman in a white dress shows up calling herself Beloved, and eventually Sethe realizes it’s her dead baby daughter grown up into a woman/spirit. Morrison has imagined a challenging, inventive, provocative story that explores – with stark realities and haunting metaphors – the exiguous lives and uplifting spirituality of African-American women at a turning point in American history. But the novel is at times hard to follow: The story moves back and forth in time, changing voices and points of view, and much of the horror Morrison describes becomes lost in her elliptical prose style.

1989 – Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons

Maggie and Ira Moran – married 28 years, with two children, and approaching the mid-century of their lives – travel by car from Baltimore to central Pennsylvania for the funeral of the husband of Maggie’s childhood friend, making some other stops along the way home. It’s a “terribly sad” day, “the kind of day when you realize that everyone eventually got lost from everyone else.” Maggie frets to strangers about family matters and remembers everything that’s happened in her life (and marriage); Ira sometimes says only six sentences a day and whistles tunes that tell what he’s feeling or thinking. But every now and then, their marriage still has that zing. “For the past several months now,” we learn, “Ira had been noticing the human race’s wastefulness. People were squandering their lives, it seemed to him. They were splurging their energies on petty jealousies or vain ambitions or long-standing, bitter grudges. It was a theme that emerged wherever he turned, as if someone were trying to tell him something. Not that he needed to be told.” The Morans are slightly less somber, dysfunctional and emotionally inept than the typical Tyler clan, and Breathing Lessons is another nice story about a middling American family from a very good storyteller.