Spackler’s Hackles by E. Whittington Ashley ($22.95, Scribner)
Undeniably one of the blockbuster hits of the year, full of disparate yet wonderfully rendered characters like Cambodian refugees and the Hungarian Mafia, evangelicals and gay rehab counselors, not to mention evangelicals in gay rehab, cheesy boyfriends and drunk bookworms. Dmitri Spackler is a protagonist for the new millennium: a savvy mix of Leopold Bloom and Jay Gatsby, with a touch of Hank Chinaski thrown in for good measure. The prose is incisive, contemporary, and full of wisdom, while simultaneously confronting the near-future with an ironic and heuristic eye. Simply put, this wonderful book stretches the boundaries of the imagination way past boundaries I had previously imagined.
Kiss My Fist by James Hadley Chase ($19.95, Pantheon)
This sublime word-drunk novel from the Caine Prize–winning author J.H. Chase is a coming-of-age story imbued with a tour-de-force love affair with language. The caretaker of a mountain lodge, Lou F. (we never learn his last name, for–spoiler alert!–reasons that will become apparent), has his isolated existence irrevocably altered when he is charged with the care of his niece and nephew, children rendered mute by the trauma of recently seeing their mother murdered by her carny ex-husband. Meanwhile, an unsuccessful prosecution of the husband leaves Lou F. and the children in mortal danger. It’s a tense, brutal, evocative thriller that I didn’t put down until I did, while also being a beautifully rendered and deeply touching meditation on pain—physical and otherwise. It’s about our connectedness, and our humanity, and the meaning of suffering, and learning to suffer to acquire that meaning. A meaning for which there is no cure. And a suffering that’s eternal. Absolutely stunning.
Sandra, if by The Sea by Cleve Lever (14.50, Picador) The eponymous Sandra, a leggy research scientist, spends sixty-six delightful chapters sidelining her own intellectual and botanical pursuits in favor of riding along with her manic depressive boyfriend’s quixotic roller-coaster vision quest for the meaning of apathy as they traipse through the dark heart of the (only metaphorical?) Amazonian jungle. Not to mention through the dawn of semiotics, post-structuralism, identity politics, and psychopharmacology. A coming-of-age novel that is as unapologetically erudite as it is funny, fun, and profound. You’ll wish you were right there with Sandra, squatting in the mud, alternately batting her boyfriend’s groping hand off her knee, as well as watching her watch him weep depressive tears into the nylon lining of his sleeping bag well into the mosquito-buzzing night. Invest in Kleenex and pour another whiskey, because this skull-hammer of a book will drown you in its inexorable tide of genius.
The Assault on Meursault is a glimmering tale of class hatred and suppressed violence, while also being a prose poem that resurrects the unexpected joy of finding love after having long since given up the possibility of it. This brave and uncompromising novel maps the geography of grief and loss in searing detail utilizing wickedly insightful narrators: a group of French tourists suddenly finding themselves stranded outside greater Cleveland. Peshwar follows his unlikely, wise-cracking, all-male troupe as they stumble into a dying city amid a heady swirl of nostalgia and fantasy, sex and suspicion, never quite shaking the priestly impact of their collective childhood abuse. The reader is quickly sucked into the men’s consciousness as the telling shifts between the collective “we” and moments when the speaker sounds distinctly personal—Meursault himself–culminates in a heart-wrenching voice rising high above the madding Midwestern crowd. The penultimate scene, which takes place in a rush of lapidary prose, on the steps of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is truly unforgettable.
Cupidity Jones by Roderrick Spencer ($12.95, St. Martins)
Mr. Spencer dazzles in his sophomore effort with this pulsating, mesmerizing fever dream of a novel. Here’s the set up: Dr. Cupidity Jones’ best friend Letitia has just been murdered and found with four toes surgically removed from her foot, and she–a retired surgeon who specialized in podiatry, and whose living room is soaked in blood–is now the prime suspect. Cupidity also has a dark secret: she retired the day she began hearing the voice of her dead grandmother, who is now confessing to the crime. Through frequent flashbacks to her grandmother’s lusty Belle Epoque affairs, you are introduced to a flesh-sodden subplot that might just be a figment of Cupidity’s imagination. Or the key to solving the crime. Spencer is a prose magician, and this book is a delicious slice of nostalgia wrapped in a scatological murder mystery that delivers down to the last digit. At turns lustily provocative, harrowing, and harrowingly lusty, this is a reader’s read.
Suckle, Nuzzle, Canoodle, Crimp by Elizabet Gibbet (17.99, Knopf)
In this, a “novel told in stories,” we are treated to a collection suffused with subtle but pointed commentary that’s both neatly and convincingly informed by Gibbet’s feminist identity. Suckle Nuzzle is more than a thinking woman’s beach book; it is an emotionally rich examination of family and the landscape of relationships that readers male and female alike will find applicable and appealing. It’s one of those books that makes you wonder, “How did she come up with this?” And then make you think the answer is probably “with a laptop and an outline.” Miss Gibbet’s playful, breathlessly ebullient style makes this a true bath-and-glass-of-wine gem, even for people who, like me, hate short stories. As daring and unrelentingly unrelenting as it is brilliant and savagely savage.
The Art of Naming by Danny Stoke ($27.99, Little, Brown)
To be truly vulgar one must immerse themselves in the genius of vulgarity, and in this haunting novella, the author delivers in a way that has rarely been so brazenly attempted. For that alone, kudos to Mr. Stoke. In play is a terrifying cast of rural characters: the haunted WWII veteran, the husband and wife serial killers who target young men along the Interstate, the predatory revival preacher and his wheelchair-bound grifter cousin, the irritable computer coder, the heavy metal bass player, all tied together with violence, sin, and gorgeous prose into a hypnotic slice of low-rent Americana. The story is rich with contradiction, and so raw and immediate you can smell the iron tang of blood, cordite, salt air, and excrement all the way across the room. This is an explosive novel in which indelible characters from priests to prostitutes are caught up in the search for a possibly mythical book that documents all human history, including the future. Culture-spanning. A damning portrait of excess veiled in a clear-eyed view of all that’s grim lying ahead.
A Man So Pusillanimous by Hideki Shingo ($18.50, Penguin)
Just this side of brilliant, but not quite, Shingo’s elegiac novel is a story of withering isolation and crushing loneliness. And metric foot-tons of obsessively described snow. Danny Pussal, born of humble genetics, is charged with nurturing the troubled genius of the young son of one of Des Moines’ most influential families. He must also navigate the social machinations of the boy’s sisters and various other farm stock as he strives to rise in agronomical society armed only with a quick wit, an irresistible charm, and looks that catch the eye of men and women alike. This is a sensuously described tale of long cold nights and frigid dawns, full of larger-than-life creations and scintillating turns of picaresque phraseology. Wonderfully, coldly, and pitch-perfectly crafted and honed and conceived and explicated and wrought.
The Hedgerow Bustler by Lorrie Dash ($8.95, Judith Regan Books)
This stunning novel is so lovingly intimate in the way it recreates the churning thought processes of a man struggling to come to terms with where he’s going, what’s happened to him, why it happened, where his life has left him, and the universal understanding of how major political issues have repercussions at an individual level for even the most ordinary and apolitical–even stupid–people. Ricky Bustler is a former hustler who has left behind the rural Dakotan community where his family has ignored and let deteriorate the same land for generations, to study for a doctorate in Little Rock, a vibrant, contemporary city full of possibility. And meth. His bright new relationship with a junior public defender, Joanne, survives unexpected complications until a sudden tragedy involving a bus full of children and certain departments of Homeland Security makes Ricky look afresh at the life he thought he had long left behind. A major triumph. A minor secular exegesis. One long, hard earned, hip-bucking prosegasm.
1919: The Year When it All Fell Apart and The Man Who Fixed it and The People Who Helped That Man and The Discovery That Made Them Famous Right Before it Made Them Rich. And, Also, The Women Who Loved Them by C.R. Throckmorton ($44.99, HarperCollins)
In a clever twist, 1919 is not only the year the book is set in, but also its page count. This is a mammoth project that is at once a non-fiction look at the vagaries and tragedies and blasphemies of the fateful year in question, but also an almost fictional and incredibly compelling and immersive story of the startling discovery of a now long-forgotten machine that, with its intricate and almost alien gears and mechanisms, tracked the “production measurables” of dozens of factory and slaughterhouse workers on Chicago’s fabled east side during the Golden Age of Beef. Throckmorton’s book is a painstaking documentation of how this machine, and the invaluable data it provided, has forever changed the way we think about food processing, shift allocation, payroll management, and the intricacies of high-level human resources. It’s a startling insight that may well be at the core of the next wave of modern management technique and personnel oversight. What was the nature of this incredible machine, and is it–as some have questioned–truly from this world? There’s only one way to find out. A must-buy, must-own, and must-display work of incredible power and rich cover glossiness.