The Deportees and Other Stories
By Roddy Doyle, Viking; $24.95
Doyle is best known for his first book, The Commitments, though his Booker Prize moment came in 1993, for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. As he notes in his introduction, Ireland has vastly changed since those books were written, going from one of Western Europe’s poorest countries to one of its richest, bolstered by a huge immigrant workforce. These stories, serialized in thin slices for a Dublin newspaper, are all about the spots where old and new Ireland meet. As a result, they’re rather petite pop observations, packed with playful and funny language. They’re also strongly plotted, with tidy endings, and aren’t the sort of thing that’ll win him more literary prizes. They are not so much in the Joycean tradition as that of O. Henry. In short: Feckin’ good read.
By Imre Kertész, Knopf; $21
Kertész began writing novels 33 years ago, when he was well into his forties, though his work was seldom translated from Hungarian into English before he won the Nobel Prize in 2002. This novella, the confession of a former interrogator and torturer in an unnamed South American country, is the first one by the Auschwitz survivor that doesn’t address the Holocaust. In fact, when it was published, in 1977, it must have been startlingly current, as Argentina’s “disappeared” were only just beginning to attract attention. But it’s a timeless, placeless parable, in which a force the narrator simply calls “the logic” supplants all law, reason, and moral conscience. Does former investigator Antonio Martens, who probably faces execution, truly feel remorse over the murder of an innocent businessman and his son—a crime that likely led to the overthrow of his bosses? It doesn’t really matter, because there is no motive, no “why” in his story; “the logic” devours everything in this chilling procedural of moral degradation.
People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks, Viking; $25.95
The former war correspondent has never shrunk from dramatic, sweeping source material—the plague, in Year of Wonders; the Civil War, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning March; and, in this latest, most complicated novel, an actual 600-year-old Passover primer that barely survived destruction many times (at least twice thanks to Muslims). Brooks finds her framing device in a flinty Aussie rare-book analyst, whose clues lead to CSI-style re-creations of the narrow escapes of the “Sarajevo Haggadah” from Nazi-occupied Bosnia, seventeenth-century Venice, and Inquisition-era Spain, where we finally glimpse its surprising origins. The research is formidable, the stories are smoothly interwoven, and Hanna Heath is a believably tough cookie with some secrets of her own. Yet Brooks doesn’t quite overcome a tendency toward historical melodrama and mushy diversity clichés. As a result, the book of the title comes off as resplendent, engrossing, and multifaceted—the people, somewhat less so.
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Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee, Viking; $24.95
Nobel winner Coetzee is a curmudgeon, and he immediately flexes his cranky muscle in his new novel, Diary of a Bad Year: The first narrator is an unabashed scold, a South African academic dissecting “what is wrong with today’s world” for a German book of essays. Thankfully, two additional narrators—the Filipina sexpot with an “angelic” derrière who types up his transcript, and her brutalizingly business-minded boyfriend—create a ménage à trois that goes a long way toward enlivening the story. Coetzee is teaching us a new way of reading: The three narratives take place simultaneously, with black lines dividing the page into unequal portions, and the reader can choose whether to read the text from top to bottom or straight across. At first the device can seem too clever by half (or a third), but slowly the tale turns into a captivating shell game: Will the typist tire of being so blatantly ogled? Will the scheming boyfriend embezzle the writer’s squirreled-away millions? Did the disgruntled academic really just defend intelligent design? By the time Coetzee sneaks suspense into the commentary section, it is apparent his tripartite novel is working a special kind of magic.
Riding Toward Everywhere
By William Vollmann, Ecco; $26.95
There are plenty of beautiful passages in this book-long essay about hopping freight trains at a time when (in Vollmann’s opinion) “unfreedom” is “creeping over America.” Morning on a grainer car and the “evergreen air was as good as breakfast,” and damn if you don’t want to be out there tasting it yourself, instead of, say, waiting to board a Florida-bound tin can at La Guardia. (Vollmann has a real beef with Bush-era airport security, in case you were wondering.) But a little introspection on masculinity and escape can go a long way, and when Vollmann—who won a National Book Award in 2005 for his epic historical novel Europe Central—writes that “this book has few points to make,” the point is well taken. One craves a few more actual stories, a few more encounters with modern-day hobos or at least fauxbeaux (people like Vollmann and his traveling companion Steve, who proudly came up with the phrase). On the other hand, in all fairness, there really aren’t that many people riding the rails anymore, as Vollmann is first to admit. The Jack London era is long gone, and if it’s easier to “catch out” without getting your head bashed in by a sadistic railroad-company enforcer, it’s also a much lonelier ride.
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