Monday, May 15, 2006

The Best Great American Novels

Members of the Kiko's House Book Club will be especially interested to know that "Beloved," Toni Morrison's 1987 novel about a family's escape from the horrors of slavery, has been named the best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years by prominent writers, critics and editors polled by the New York Times.

The runners-up were:

Underworld byDon DeLillo (1997)

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels by John Updike (1960-1995)

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Books receiving multiple votes were:

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980), Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980), Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (1983), White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985), The Counterlife by Philip Roth (1986), Libra by Don DeLillo (1988), Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver (1988), The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (1990), Mating by Norman Rush (1991), Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson (1992), Operation Shylock by Philip Roth (1993), Independence Day by Richard Ford (1995), Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth (1995), Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (1992-99), The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000), The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003), The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004).


In an essay accompanying the list of nominated books, A.O. Scott writes:

More than a century ago, Frank Norris wrote that "the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff" . . . The hippogriff, a monstrous hybrid of griffin and horse, is often taken as the very symbol of fantastical impossibility, a unicorn's unicorn. But the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster - or sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people - not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation - claim to have seen. The Times Book Review, ever wary of hoaxes but always eager to test the boundary between empirical science and folk superstition, has commissioned a survey of recent sightings.


My own gluttonous literary diet consists almost entirely of non-fiction works, but I have read several books on the Times list.

I was especially delighted to see "The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien, for my money the best novelist to write about the Vietnam War. I only recently read "The Known World," a magnificent feat of imagination by Edward P. Jones, while I tore through Mark Helprin's "Winter Tale" several years ago during a major snowstorm.

My personal favorite would have to be Phillip Roth's "The Plot Against America," an astoundingly clever doppelgänger which resounds even more loudly given today's event than it did when I first read in two years ago.

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