1990 – Oscar Hijuelos, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love


The Castillo brothers are musicians who move to New York City from Havana in 1949: Cesar, the flamboyant elder, with his “king-cock strut and manly arrogance,” is a relentless ladies’ man who ends up a lonely old bachelor; Nestor, the melancholy younger, pines for beautiful Maria who left him in Havana, and marries the beautiful Delores, with whom he has two children. Hijuelos’ novel is at once a bouncy fable about these man as well as a modern critique of machismo and an exploration of the depths of love and sexual passion. Although entertaining, it feels at the same time like it’s reaching for a sort of post-modern faux-documentary effect: The Castillo brothers appear as guests of Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy, and from time to time Hijuelos places an asterisk next to a name or term, then expounds upon it at the bottom of the page in passages that could easily have been woven into the narrative.

1991 – John Updike, Rabbit at Rest

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is semi-retired. He has a winter condo in Florida, two grandchildren from the marriage of his indolent coke-addicted son, and a heart condition that signals the beginning of his end. This is the fourth and final novel in Updike’s Rabbit series – the third one, Rabbit Is Rich (1982), also won a Pulitzer. As always with Updike, Rabbit at Rest explores the malaise of middle-class American life, and Rabbit has never seemed so comfortably adrift with himself, which is no doubt the impression the novel wants to convey. But there are no emotional surprises in Updike’s story or in his detailed account of the profound trivialities of How We Live.

1992 – Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres

The story is told by the even-tempered Ginny Cook, eldest of three sisters raised on their thriving family farm in Iowa. Sister Rose is married with children, sister Caroline is a big-city lawyer. Their formidable, alcoholic father, a long-time widower, is getting older, so he turns his farm into a corporation with his daughters as equal shareholders. But desire, regret and a family secret finally disrupt their lives. Despite its informative portrait of modern farming, its contemporary issues, and its classical leaning (think King Lear), the novel is most absorbing when it becomes an intense (if, by now, familiar) psychological drama about sexual abuse, a twist that rips open the facade of the tranquil all-American family.

1993 – Robert Olen Butler, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain


Fifteen distinctive short stories that explore life and culture in Vietnam and America, each narrated by a different Vietnamese person – a businessman, a middle-aged woman, a prostitute/stripper, numerous others – now living in Louisiana. The stories are all very well-told, and each ends with a small irony or a haunting twist, just as a good short story must. Most are quietly sad or moving, a few are very funny, and one is long enough to be a novella. Together they create a panoply of Vietnamese experiences and a glimpse of their customs and values.

1994 – E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

A fat, ugly, chronically incompetent American fellow married to a woman who sleeps with everyone but him begins his life anew in his ramshackle ancestral home in cold, isolated Newfoundland. With him he takes his two young daughters and the lesbian aunt he just recently met. Great atmosphere and evocation of her milieu, but Proulx sets up such a hapless, hopeless protagonist in Quoyle that you never believe he’s capable of the things he achieves. She brings him to an inevitable place of peace and harmony.

1995 – Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries


A walk through the 20th Century that centers on a woman and her family and acquaintances. Often moving and insightful, always interesting. But somehow it seems like too much of the character’s life is told to us in a rather sweeping shorthand, so it becomes hard to get involved in some of her remarkable transitions and accomplishments. The authorial hand is sometimes a bit too strong, although the point of view – which changes, but which usually seems to be that of the protagonist looking back upon her life after her death – is intriguing. Although the book is, of course, a novel, it contains eight pages of black and white family photos that purport to depict the central characters. No doubt these are simply found photos, or perhaps photos from Shields’ own family albums. They’re certainly an unusual feature, employed to enhance the novel’s autobiographical quality.

1996 – Richard Ford, Independence Day

Spend several days in the life of Frank Bascombe, a divorced real estate salesman at mid-life and the central figure in Ford’s earlier novel The Sportswriter (Bascombe’s former profession). Bascombe tells his own story, and thank goodness he was once a writer. How else could we explain a description of a New Jersey town in which “summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.” Ford, however, is a Southerner, so all that’s missing from this Jersey landscape are the magnolias. This novel tells a very thoughtful, intimate, revealing story of a good-natured, well-meaning man struggling to do the right thing and make the right commitments, but not quite able to do it. “A sad fact, of course, about adult life,” Bascombe observes, “is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon. . .You tell yourself you’ll have to change your way of doing things. Only you don’t. You can’t. Somehow it’s already too late.” This milieu (and malaise) is not unlike Updike’s, though Ford’s writing is more naturalistic and rather less poetic.

1997 – Steven Millhauser,
Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer


“There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune.” So opens Millhauser’s tale, which tells the story of a late 19th Century lad who becomes a successful young Manhattan entrepreneur and hotel magnate until his dreams get too big. It’s evocative of the era, with lots of absorbing documentary-like period detail, but it slowly grows from a yarn on the brink of realism to a fable on the edge of becoming subtly post-modern. There’s an under-explored joylessness to the characters, especially the women. Millhauser ends his novel with an image taken from the cinema, with Martin brushing off the seat of his pants, putting on his hat, and walking down a New York street into the sunlight – a sort of literary Little Tramp of means.

1998 – Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Seymour Levov – called “the Swede” because of his fair skin and blond hair – was a revered high school athlete in the 1940s. Now it’s 1995, and from out of the blue, the Swede has called upon the noted author Nathan Zuckerman – whom he knew back in their old neighborhood – ostensibly asking him to write a small tribute to the Swede’s late father.


What unfolds – with extraordinary insight, wit and pathos – is the tragedy of a reasonably talented and successful man: A grandchild of immigrants, assimilated into American culture, and now facing the consequences of having lived a 20th Century American life. In high school, the Swede was such a mythic figure that everyone thought he had no depth – that he was merely an athlete destined to run his father’s glove manufacturing business. But in 1968, his 16-year-old anti-war daughter blows up the town’s post office and kills a prominent doctor, thus altering everything the Swede believes about life and himself.

Roth presents ’60s radicalism with a jaundiced view that’s well suited to his protagonist. Zuckerman, who has appeared in four other Roth novels, returns here merely to introduce the Swede and his story. “What are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people?” Zuckerman muses, in a moment (among many) of wry wisdom. “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget about being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.” Splendid. [This essay in The New Yorker discusses Roth’s work.] Read the book online.

1999 – Michael Cunningham, The Hours

In this homage to Virginia Woolf and her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway – an introspective drama about a woman who spends the day fretting over her socially important soiree that evening – Cunningham writes three tales, each set in a different time and place, that echo Woolf’s voice and parallel her book and her life.


In 1923 London, Virginia Woolf awakens, declines breakfast at her husband’s insistence, and retires to her room to continue writing Mrs. Dalloway, whose lead character, she has decided, will commit suicide out of some “miniature but very real desperation.” In 1949 Los Angeles, pregnant bookworm Laura Brown, whose doting husband will enjoy a birthday party that evening, awakens to continue reading Mrs. Dalloway, having become consumed with Woolf’s “brilliance, strangeness and immeasurable sorrow,” which enlivens Laura’s housewife life. In contemporary New York, 52-year-old Clarissa Vaughn, dubbed “Mrs. Dalloway” in college by her then-lover, Richard, is planning a party in her West Village apartment to honor Richard – a poet of high acclaim and plummeting T-cell count.

The story involving Clarissa Vaughn – a lesbian/novelist who works with PWAs, and who’s raised a fine daughter with her lover of 18 years – dominates the narrative, which unites the women, in delicately post-modern fashion, through images, themes and passages from Woolf. Taken together, their stories reflect upon how women’s lives differ depending upon their times, and how they ultimately converge. This is the first gay-themed, AIDS-themed novel to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Cunningham’s fine writing often possesses the ghostly feel of Woolf’s psychological prose, and he imbues his novel with a melancholy sense of death and dying to accompany his doleful meditations on the nature of love, happiness and desire. The novel’s passages of everyday life in the two earlier eras have the most resonance, purity and effect, and there’s a well-done twist at the end that’s at once completely shocking and thoroughly plausible.