The best books that we read in 2010 that were published before 2010:
Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño (2008, English translation) — Bolaño’s fake encyclopedia of right-wing writers is a tragicomic crash course in misanthropy, failure, and fated violence. Francisco Goldman’s blurb on the back of the book is spot on–the book is a “key cosmology to Bolaño’s literary universe.” Nazi Literature is like an index for the Bolañoverse–creepy, steeped in dread, deeply, caustically funny, and bitterly poignant.
Butterfly Stories by William T. Vollmann (1993) — Adventures in the Southeast Asian sex trade. Bleakly funny, often depressing, and filled with erudite asides on Nobel prizewinners, transvestites, and the benefits of whiskey and benadryl. Plenty of grotesque sex. Not for everyone. In fact, not for most people.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970) — Higgins throws his audience into the deep end of gritty urban Boston on the wrong side of the sixties in this crime noir classic. There’s little exposition to spell out Coyle’s intricate and fast-paced plot, but there is plenty of machine-gun dialogue, rendered very true and very raw. Higgins trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way.
Home Land (2004) and Venus Drive (2000) by Sam Lipsyte — Is there a better stylist working today than Lipsyte? Does anyone write better sentences? Of course, sentences alone don’t matter much if you don’t have a story worth telling, and both Homeland and Venus Drive deliver. They are seething, funny, poignant books, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, despite their myriad sins.
Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (1968) — One of the many small vignettes that comprise Steps begins with the narrator going to a zoo to see an octopus that is slowly killing itself by consuming its own tentacles. The piece ends with the same narrator discovering that a woman he’s picked up off the street is actually a man. In between, he experiences sexual frustration with a rich married woman. The piece is less than three pages long. You will either hate or love this book.
Cloud Atlas (2004) and Black Swan Green (2006) by David Mitchell — Cloud Atlas is a postmodern puzzle piece of six nested narratives (each a smart take on some kind of genre fiction), informed by Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence; Black Swan Green (which for some reason we forgot to review here) is a funny and heartwarming coming-of-age story of a boy who copes with his terrible stutter and his parents’ crumbling marriage in early 1980’s England. The books have little in common save their brilliance–which seems kinda sorta unfair. It also seems unfair that Mitchell put them out so quickly. Damn him.
Angels by Denis Johnson (1983) — Angels begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (1979) — A beautiful, rambling riff on American literature — Suttree picks up on Emerson and Twain, Faulkner and Whitman, and flows into a new, wild territory that is pure McCarthy. Is it his best novel? Could be. Read it.