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It wasn’t just E. L. Doctorow who looked into the past this year—though some didn’t look too far, with one 9/11 novel outshining the rest. Brooklyn writers kept themselves busy (when not feuding), graphic books continued to pop, Joan Didion redeemed the memoir, Mary Gaitskill made us happy-sad, and Donald Trump defended his authorial honor.


General William T. Sherman, at rest.  

Best Literary Fiction
‘The March,’ by E. L. Doctorow
(Random House) In reimagining Sherman’s Civil War march to the sea as a tubular, tentacled, all-consuming dragon-serpent, Doctorow assumes the prophetic role of the nineteenth-century writers he so admires (Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Poe) to write an alternate creation myth for the Republic. Among infantry, nurses, shutterbugs, profiteers, and 25,000 freed slaves, we find not only prototypes of coming attractions in Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison (as well as the young surgeon in Doctorow’s Waterworks and the senior of the Coalhouse Walker Jr. we will meet in Ragtime) but also an elegy for and a bone-scan of an opportunity tragically lost. The fluidity of this second American revolution—of free agency, class mobility, and self-invention, of black slave girls passing for white drummer boys—was strangled in its crib after Reconstruction.

2 ‘Pearl,’ by Mary Gordon
(Pantheon) On Christmas Day 1998, 50-year-old Maria Meyers, a supervisor of day-care centers in upper Manhattan and a Zabar’s of fierce opinion on almost every imaginable topic, is informed by the State Department that her daughter, Pearl, who went to Trinity College to study the Irish language, has refused drink for six days and declared her intention to die in Dublin, chained to the American Embassy flagpole. Maria is on the next flight. What follows is another of Gordon’s fearless inquiries into the hydra-headed nature of truth—about history, religion, politics, justice, violence, and martyrdom; about the death wish, yes, but also, of course, mother love.

3 ‘The Writing on the Wall,’ by Lynn Sharon Schwartz
(Counterpoint) After the attack on the World Trade Center, Renata, a linguist at the New York Public Library, is suddenly asked by the Feds to add Arabic to her other exotic languages (Bliondan, Etinoi), even as she tries to cope with a crazy mother, an importunate lover, a teenage mute, a dead twin, and the child she thinks she lost on a merry-go-round. As starkly elegant as the Chinese calligraphy Renata practices—and superior to the 9/11 fictions of both Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer in its melding of psychological and geopolitical dream worlds.
— John Leonard

Best Nonfiction
‘The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,’ by Sean Wilentz
(Norton) This barge of a book (992 pages) confirms Sean Wilentz as the Richard Hofstadter of our day—the supreme political historian. But where Hofstadter wrote history in dazzling generalities, Wilentz both expounds on massive themes and pillages the archives for little-known characters and forgotten movements. (Long live the Locofocos!) He tells a story that parallels George Packer’s book about Iraq—the sweaty, excruciating delivery of democracy—except with a happy ending

2 ‘The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life,’ by Tom Reiss
(Random House) Though Reiss isn’t a perfect storyteller, he has found the perfect story: a Jewish fabulist named Lev Nussimbaum who re-created himself as a Muslim prince and scholar called Essad Bey (or sometimes Kurban Said). Nussimbaum’s biography includes proto-Fascism, persecution by Fascism, and a childhood in strangely cosmopolitan pre-WWI Azerbaijan. In addition to the charms of its digressions (Kurdish devil-worship, early German film) and the twisted psyche of its subject, The Orientalist is a triumph of research. Piecing together Nussimbaum’s life makes for its own epic tale.

3 ‘Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
(William Morrow) This book has no thesis, an annoying title, a phony humility, and sundry other grating tropes. Yet it makes such interesting arguments and compiles such counterintuitive data that you can’t help but hang a medal around its neck. Economics, it turns out, can become quite a readable subject when writers connect the Ku Klux Klan to car prices or cheating schoolteachers to sumo wrestling.
— Franklin Foer

Uzodinma Iweala, chronicler of a murderous boy.  

Best Debut Novel
‘Beasts of No Nation,’ by Uzodinma Iweala
(HarperCollins) As arresting as the language is in Iweala’s first novel—a hard, clipped pidgin African English punctuated by onomatopoeic “KPAWA”s—it’s the horrific plot, and its numb preteen teller, that makes the book such a rough and dizzying ride. Iweala’s boy narrator, drafted by a guerrilla army on pain of death, is both a victim and, by the book’s end, a repentant butcher. Iweala, born in Washington, D.C., to members of the Nigerian elite, and barely a year out of Harvard, makes an unbelievably imaginative leap out of little more than a few interviews with child soldiers. His confidence in outlining the capacity for evil under extreme circumstances without resorting to do-gooder clichés preempts the inevitable lament—by now itself a cliché—over our tendency to fall for first efforts by privileged young writers.

2 ‘Indecision,’ by Benjamin Kunkel
(Random House) Kunkel’s hilarious and skillful work confronts the bugaboos of autobiographical slacker fiction head-on. His protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding, emerges from his urban postcollegiate ennui with something even Holden Caulfield couldn’t quite muster: a fully fledged social conscience.

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