Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The 2009 Johnny-Bingo Awards

The suspense is over. It is time for the 2009 Johnny-Bingo Awards, given annually to the Best Books Read by Yours Truly this year.

(Go here for last year’s awards)

The award is named for the first book I remember calling my favorite – something about two boys, a dog, and a bank robber. Or maybe it was two bank robbers, a boy and a dog. Or maybe two dogs…anyway, the point is that I am the judge, jury and executioner for this, the last major literary prize handed out this year.

Okay, maybe it’s not such a major prize. But given the way the other literary prizes have been operating this year, I think I have a chance to pass them in prestige.

Take the Nobel Prize in Literature (please). This year the Nobel folks took a lot of heat for their selection of President Barack Obama for the Peace Prize. But that head-scratcher obscured the fact that the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Herta Muller, a Romanian writer so obscure that the response even in Romania seemed to be “Yay!!! Um…who?”

The Nobel Lit folks have made it clear that they despise American literature and are determined to give Nobels out to every obscure novelist on earth before the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, or Joyce Carol Oates grace their stage. The National Book Award on the other hand is, you know, the National book award. For Americans. It states quite clearly in their bylaws that the nominees be American.

Well, here are the nominees for this year’s National Book Award in fiction:

- Colum McCann, an Irishman born in Dublin, currently residing in New York.
- Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian who moved to America in 1992.
- Marcel Theroux, son of the American writer Paul Theroux, who was born in Uganda and now lives in London.
- Daniyal Mueenuddin, who grew up in Pakistan and Wisconsin, lives in the southern Punjab, and is currently spending a year in London.
- Jayne Anne Phillips, born in West Virginia and now living in New Jersey.

Can I get a “USA! USA!” chant?

The J-B Rules
I’m not as sophisticated as those other folks. I don’t read obscure Romanian novelists, I’ve never heard of Daniyal Mueenuddin, and am frequently seen with a paperbook thriller in my hand. I’m also ashamed to admit that most of the books I read are written by (gasp!) Americans – and the worst kind of Americans, the ones that are born here, live here, and write about here. Insular bastards. (Maybe I should call these the Johnny-Jingo Awards. The Bonny-Jingo Awards?)

The Johnny-Bingo Award(s) have one judge – me – and one rule: all eligible books must have been finished by me in 2009. As I said last year, it could’ve been written by a blind Greek poet in the 8th century BC or be an unpublished galley hacked from an MFA candidate’s MacBook in a Brooklyn cafe. As long as I read the final paragraph before the calendar turns, it could be a winner.

Let’s look at our finalists:

Best New Crime Novelist
Famed restaurant journalist Peter Romeo was surprised – maybe even embarrassed - to hear I had never read Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos and pressed copies of their novels on me. I also read the newcomers Josh Bazell and Stieg Larson and tried out Stuart Woods for the first time. The first three get the coveted Keatang recommendations but we can only have one winner in the category and it is…Dennis Lehane! (please hold your applause till all the winners have been announced)

It was a tough race and I suspect that Mr. Pelecanos and I will be spending a lot more time together. But if you like your crime novel heroes hard-boiled, wise-crackin’, and existentially dark, Lehane is your guy. Be prepared though – the capacity for evil in his bad guys, not to mention his good guys, will make you weep for humanity.

Best History Book about Post-War America
I read a lot of history but they tend to cover that short period between 500 B.C. and 1945. I’m less interested, for reasons I can’t defend, in books about the post-war period. But this year I took two plunges into the 60’s (An Unfinished Life: John Kennedy 1917-1963 and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965) and one into the 00’s (Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan).

One thing about history books about the 1960’s…there is a lot of sex! JFK makes Tiger Woods look like the Dali Lama. And MLK – well, this is a worshipful book about the Reverend but there are transcripts from his hotel room romps that made me blush. You don’t see this in books about the Founders. Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton both got around but were fortunate enough to do so before tape recording and the FBI.

Pillar of Fire is the greater book of the three and destined for a long shelf life. But I too often got lost in the huge cast of characters and couldn’t find my way out. The book assumes knowledge of racial politics of the period that I don’t have. Horse Soldiers is a terrific story and I heartily recommend it – especially if like me you are sick and tired of the media’s treatment of America’s soldiers as either villains or victims. This is a story of true American heroes. But the writing is a little bit hokey.

Unfinished Life gets the nod. Biographer Robert Dallek doesn’t shy away from the glamorous (and sordid) stories about the Kennedys, but at its heart it’s a study of the Cold War at its peak, and the important role JFK played in it.

Best Book in an Unclassifiable Category
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is Harry Potter meets Less Than Zero meets The Narnia Chronicles. If that sounds like something you might like, you will.

Christopher Moore’s Fool is King Lear with "gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as non-traditional grammar, spit infinitives, and the odd wank". If that sounds like something you might like, you will.

I enjoyed Fool, but the nod here goes to The Magicians.

Best Big Ideas Book
The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb is one of those books whose big idea – that human history is shaped more by huge unforeseen events rather than occurring in a predictable flow – is one that I totally bought, even if I bickered with Taleb in the margins along the way.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is one of those books whose big idea – that large-scale modern food production does more bad than good – is one that I totally disagreed with, even though I enjoyed nearly every page of the book.

Nod to Taleb, since his ideas, unlike Pollan’s, are unlikely to lead to global starvation, not to mention federal regulations telling me to eat my locally-grown organic spinach.

Best Book of the Year
And the winner of the Johnny-Bingo Award goes to…none of the above! Scanning over my book log for the year, I keep coming back to Freedomland, a 1998 novel by Richard Price.

Price is one of those writers whose every sentence is so damned good, you give up any hopes of writing a novel yourself. It’s not just the quality of the prose though; underneath that graceful prose is knowledge born of hard-earned reporting. But it’s not just knowledge, gracefully presented. There is wisdom in Price’s work.

The folks who give out Nobel Literature prizes claim American novelists are insular. Freedomland is proof they are wrong.

Congratulations to Mr. Price, who is not only the 2009 Johnny-Bingo Award winner, but the most underrated American novelist working today.

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