2010 – Paul Harding, Tinkers

George Washington Crosby (1915-1995) and Howard Aaron Crosby (d. 1972) were remarkable men, sturdy New Englanders who didn’t just let life happen to them. Howard, the father, was a traveling salesman who rode his mule-drawn wooden wagon through the Maine hills, selling things to backwoods people who lived in somber isolation. George, his son, got an engineering degree at night, taught high school, became a guidance counselor, retired at 60, then spent the rest of his life repairing clocks.


Now George is dying, on a rented hospital bed in the living room of the house he built himself, as his family – wife, kids and grandkids – tend to him during his final few hundred hours left on earth. And as they do, George (who is hallucinating, his house collapsing around him) remembers both his life and the life of his father (who was epileptic) with lucid, almost microscopic detail.

Harding’s story of these two men – unknown to the world, but each highly accomplished in his own way – is usually interesting, occasionally moving and rarely mannered or pretentious (as stories about rural death can be). By the time it’s over, an artist could probably recreate George’s home accurately down to the paintings and clocks on the wall. When George built the home, “lightning struck once when he was in the open foundation, soldering the last joint on the hot-water tank. It threw him to the opposite wall. He got up and finished the joint.” Now that’s a sturdy New Englander. They live a no-frills life: The town doctor wore eyeglasses, “justified because of his profession,” but apparently, everyone else just squinted and made do. On his rounds as a salesman, Howard, the son of a minister who lost his mind, once delivered a baby, saved a drowning girl, and pulled the rotted tooth of a hermit who claimed to have attended Bowdoin College with Nathaniel Hawthorne, although nobody believed him. To thank Howard, the old man gave him a copy of The Scarlet Letter autographed by the author.

George and especially Howard survived in an age of unspoken anxieties, but they managed them well enough to live productive lives, for this was a time before we knew what anxieties were – or at least before we had license to indulge them. “Howard resented the ache in his heart,” Harding tells us.

He resented equally the ache and the resentment itself. He resented his resentment because it was a sign of his own limitations of spirit and humility, no matter that he understood that such was each man’s burden. He resented the ache because it was uninvited, seemed imposed, a sentence, and, despite the encouragement he gave himself each morning, it baffled him because it was there whether the day was good or bad, whether he witnessed major kindness or minor transgression, suffered sourceless grief or spontaneous joy.

Harding writes evocatively and yet tells his stories concisely, only occasionally indulging a passage that seems to want to transcend normal time and space (i.e., a few of his sentences last for a page or more). The gaze is decidedly inward, and although the story of the Crosby family takes place throughout the whole of the 20th Century, there’s no mention of any war or the strife of the world around them. It’s a nice little book – a sincere window into a very particular world – that understands its characters and recreates the sensations of their lives with clarity and insight, the sort of book you would expect a well-educated (Iowa Writers’ Workshop) first-time novelist to write.

2011 – Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

In 1987, The New Yorker published a piece, written by the perfectly named Eric Metaxas, called “That Post-Modernism!”, in which the author reviewed the latest purported titles in the emerging literary genre. His subjects included such books as “The Name of Pete Rose,” “Hola, Buzzy: Memoirs of an Argentine Insect,” and “Veal Fuselage,” which “brings into question the very notion of ‘book,’ made as it is of large steel girders and fur.”


Chapter 12 of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a 75-page PowerPoint presentation, by 12-year-old Alison Blake, that flashes forward to the year 2020-something to look at the future family of her mother, Sasha, one of the novel’s two central characters. In circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, trapezoids, charts and speech bubbles linked by lines and arrows, Alison catalogues her family’s myriad quirks and dysfunctions. The squabbles among the two adults and their two kids are pretty routine (think Updike, Tyler or Ford in the Pulitzer Prize canon), so it’s no wonder Egan juiced them up. Her po-mo imagination makes reading it just a little harder for us, but no doubt much harder for Knopf, which had to set it all in type.

Goon Squad traverses many decades (from the ’70s to the future), generations (at least three), “scenes” (on both coasts) and points of view. The multi-faceted, multi-voiced narration is sometimes über-omniscient (in the ’70s, the narrator speculates on the Facebook and Google futures of the characters) and sometimes first- or second-person. It’s impressive writing in a virtuoso way, but the story that Egan tells is at once too contrived and too clichéd to be of any consequence: Goon Squad is a mordant satire of faded celebrities, genocidal dictators, desperate publicists, mentally ill journalist/rapists, malicious social climbers, and all of the people in their wobbly orbit. In fact, the book falls somewhere between a collection of interlocking stories and a novel, no doubt just what Egan intended (and what Elizabeth Strout did two years ago in her Pulitzer novel Olive Kitteridge, albeit in a much more conventional way).

Egan’s storytelling jumps around in time, a technique that’s become trendy in movies as a way to mask what’s essentially soap opera or melodrama. The two primary sections – before PowerPoint, and then the final chapter, which takes place in a futuristic New York kept safe by hovering helicopters – are titled “A” and “B,” as in: How do we get from Point A to Point B in our lives? The “goon squad” of the title is that ruthless assailant – time.

This all means that it’s hard to say who Egan’s two main characters “are,” so let’s just go with who they are when we meet them in the first two chapters: Bennie Salazar, 44, a famous music producer, divorced with a 9-year-old son, sort of impotent and with little sexual desire, sprinkling gold flakes in his coffee as a curative (or palliative); and Sasha Grady, 35, an unmarried kleptomaniac in therapy for her affliction, and no longer Bennie’s assistant after many years in his employ.

From here, Egan unravels their relatively straightforward lives (for people of their profession and station) and the lives of the people around them. The PowerPoint chapter is either a welcomed change or a cheap trick, depending upon your level of tolerance. Egan’s characters drop lots of names (musicians and such – some real, some not), but Egan herself doesn’t seem to have any particular insight into the history of pop music or culture. Perhaps she didn’t want to (she makes up the celebrities she eviscerates). Her novel is entertaining, imaginative, lugubrious, and emotionally uninvolving, with flashes of black humor – that is to say, pretty run of the mill, despite working so diligently to seem like a big vast ocean of originality and insight.

2013 – Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son

This fanciful, long-winded novel by Adam Johnson, a professor of writing at Stanford, takes place in North Korea and ostensibly begins in the late 1970s, when its central character, Jun Do, takes part in a bizarre passage in North Korean history: For half a dozen years or so, the government engaged in the business of kidnapping Japanese citizens – hundreds of them, by some estimates – and ferrying them back to North Korea. Next the government trains Jun Do in English so he can serve as a translator/spy aboard a fishing vessel. More adventures ensue for the remainder of the book’s 175-page part one, which is more or less a prologue.


The book’s much longer part two follows Jun Do as he rescues the object of his obsession, Sun Moon, a famous cinema star married to Commander Ga, a bureaucrat, taekwando master and hero of past wars. Except he’s not Jun Do. Except he is. This story takes places in an interrogation center, where a man who claims to be Commander Ga (spoiler alert: it’s Jun Do) undergoes torture in an effort to determine his true identity and to get him to reveal where he dumped the bodies of Sun Moon and her children, whom the interrogators believe he murdered. The truth unfolds both in the present and in flashback, some chapters narrated by the imposter Ga, some by his young interrogator, and some by the Orwellian voice on the loudspeakers (in everyone’s home) that spew daily propaganda to the mesmerized-cum-subservient population.

Johnson’s novel is most interesting when he describes the intricate
mechanisms of torture and surveillance constructed by the paranoid totalitarians who have ruled North Korean for more than half a century: They broadcast ridiculous fabricated assertions about the wonderful People’s Republic, all as citizens die of starvation – the Arduous March, each famine is called – and never know when some new caprice by Kim Jong Il (“The Dear Leader”) will disrupt their lives. The storytellers narrate matter-of-factly, presenting near-operatic horrors in a low key, bordering almost on black comedy, and finally ascending to an almost absurd climax. If there’s a central theme, it’s the idea of identity: having none, finding one, and if necessary, making one up – all in a country of perpetual true lies. This, of course, is not a problem in America, where each citizen is considered to be an individual, just like everyone else, and where the government tells its citizens the whole truth and nothing but.

The kidnapping sequence, which occupies about 40 pages early in the novel, is compellingly told. Johnson certainly did his research, and it shows over and over as he recreates details of the milieus into which he places his characters. This material, combined with the intrigue of the Sun Moon story that (too) slowly unfolds in part two, makes The Orphan Master’s Wife a sufficiently enjoyable yarn.

But there’s a lot of repetition in the narrative, and Johnson trades in somewhat transparent irony and paradox. When Jun Do visits Texas on a pseudo-diplomatic mission, he has a conversation with a senator’s wife:

“Are there labor camps here?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Mandatory marriages, forced-criticism sessions, loudspeakers?”

She shook her head.

“Then I’m not sure I could ever feel free here,” he said. “When you’re in
my country, everything makes simple, clear sense. It’s the most
straightforward place on earth.”

We could pass this off as Jun Do saying what he must to avoid repercussions back home. But it feels like he means it – and it doesn’t make much sense, even as irony. A short novel of stark social realism about everyday people in North Korea might finally have been more valuable – and more palpable – than this adulterated tale.

2014 – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

At age 13, Theo Decker survives a devastating homegrown terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his mother, an eccentric Manhattanite (née a Kansan) who arrived in the city penniless, got a degree in art history, and worked at a fashion company, yet still somehow managed to live hand to mouth.


The Goldfinch opens with a prologue that takes place 14 years later, with Theo holed up in a cold Amsterdam hotel room, a fugitive in the Netherlands for reasons that form the foundation of Tartt’s dramatic thriller. We then flash back to the beginning – the bombing – as Theo’s vivid memories tell the eventful story of how he came to be a wanted man.

The novel’s title refers to a 1654 oil painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who studied with Rembrandt. The painting depicts a solemn little bird, his leg chained to a box mounted on a wall. Theo’s mother loves this painting, and when the bomb goes off, Theo manages to grab it and take it with him. Years later, it becomes the center of intrigue in his adult life, but during his teen-age years, a gambler-father, a raffish best friend, and a series of other colorful characters complicate his chaotic life – along with a few special people who make him feel secure.

Of course, he grows up with scars, but he manages to mask them most of the time with silence – and a relatively manageable drug habit. The sadness of his experience never goes away, “but depression wasn’t the word,” he writes.

This was a plunge encompassing sorrows and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.

It’s no surprise, then, that when he goes into the business of restoring and selling antique furniture, he figures out ways to scam people. “It was a game to size up a customer and figure out the image they wanted to project,” he says, “not so much the people they were as the people they wanted to be.” The novel.s psychological and dramatic center seems to be Theo’s struggle to find ways to wring a few drops of joy and humanity out of the filthy wet rag of life he sees all around him.

The Goldfinch is long, in part, because Theo observes everything so watchfully and documents what he sees so thoroughly. He learned this from his mother, who taught him to look closely at art and at the world. But by the time we get to the protracted climax, these observations become burdensome in a tale that could have been half as long and twice as effective, its metaphors about art and our connection to it buried by its breadth. Theo is an affecting character, and you feel for him in the way you’d feel for any bright, quite boy who loses his mother horribly.

As it goes on and on, The Goldfinch so obscures its purpose that Tartt spends her last 20 pages or so explaining what she wants it all to mean. Her novel is an old-fashioned page-turner, and she carefully parcels out her many climaxes and twists, so much so that you often feel the author’s hand more heavily than its intended effect. Tartt trades in safely universal themes: the randomness of life, the goodness of (some) people, the power of (unrequited) love. It’s like a transitional book for readers of young adult novels who want to make the leap to more grown-up fiction.