Notable Fiction

Award winners and near-winners to read this Spring

While the Huffington Post blazed the way for new media winning a Pulitzer Prize on Monday, the literary world was stunned by the board’s refusal to name a Fiction winner for the first time since 1977. They did, however, reveal the three finalists—a posthumously completed novel by David Foster Wallace, 29-year-old Karen Russell’s debut novel and a hardcover re-release of Denis Johnson’s 2002 novella. In the spirit of fostering a rich community of conflicting ideas, we’re taking advantage of their indecision to stockpile our spring reads. Here, Pulitzer’s uncrowned picks along with three titles that did snag some prestigious awards in 2011 to get you through the season.

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The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The Fiction Pulitzer is designated “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”, and the committee notes Foster Wallace’s last work as a story “animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.” Published more than two years after the author’s suicide in 2008, “The Pale King“—which is actually a compilation of unfinished pages and notes pulled together by his editor Michael Pietsch—tells a deeply sad story of stagnant mundanity in a Midwest I.R.S. office, jumping to the other end of the spectrum from the pleasure bender of “Infinite Jest”. Those un-annointed in Foster Wallace’s singular prose will benefit from diving into his repertoire from here.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Unfolding the wild Florida Everglades world behind the short story Zoetrope published in 2006, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”, “Swamplandia!” marks Russell’s enchanting first go at a full-fledged novel. Between her masterful grip on protagonist Ava’s teenage narration of her life on her family’s swamp-set theme park and a commanding knack for presenting environmental, economic and societal issues against a lovably dysfunctional family dynamic, Russell is off to a resoundingly strong start.

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Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

In just 116 pages—the expanse of one quiet afternoon, perhaps—Johnson shares the life of Robert Grainier, whom the Pulitzer committee describes as “a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm.” As we chart today’s uncertain path of everyday life on the brink of another kind of new frontier, it’s comforting to follow Grainier through “Train Dreams” as he faces Johnson’s beautifully drawn world with courage and vulnerability.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

With the 2011 National Book Award emblazoned on its cover, Ward’s second novel represents literature’s most respected contribution for the year. The story, chosen from 315 nominees and five finalists, spans the 12 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina as seen by a pregnant 14-year-old girl, Esch Batiste. Zeroing in on the tiny moments threading through mostly tragic lives, Ward has established the lyrical, powerful voice of a master storyteller in “Salvage the Bones“.

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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Beyond the popular buzz it garnered, “The Tiger’s Wife” established credibility with Obreht’s selection as one of the National Book Awards’ 5 Under 35 in 2010 and NBA Finalist in 2011—the first author to earn such a distinction. Written primarily during her college years, the book follows a Balkan family (their exact country is never specified) through the region’s conflicts from the present day and stretching back to WWII. Conveying wisdom in her rich narrative, Obreht’s first novel promises a bright future from the prodigal writer.

Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

The well-established author of various story collections drove her point home with the success of her latest collection, which continues with her expert ability to weave significant feeling and cultural statements into a series of beautifully captured narratives about being Jewish after WWII. Score one for independent publishers, too—”Binocular Vision” was the first volume published by Lookout Books, christening the house by going on to earn NBA Finalist status and then winning the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Contributions by Ami Kealoha and Kelly O’Reilly