This one is tough, but before I get to that: man, people don't like this guy! I can't remember the last time I read a book that earned such visceral, unsolicited negativity--subway, bookstore, polite conversation. "I would never read something like that" is a response you expect to certain kinds of YA genre stuff and absolute trash like the Turner Diaries, but I heard that phrase twice, both times from people who are about as liberal as you can be before you can't leave the house for fear of hurting the grass with your feet. So much venom! The book itself is actually pretty engaging for a good long run, as you watch the balancing act of a ridiculously nerdy guy trying to maintain a normal life while being surrounded by men of supremely intimidating violence. Moving around from lair to lair, trying to keep a relationship going (he's terribly unsuccessful, more on that in a second), trying to remain creative, trying to be a father...it's an unusual existence, living in secrecy and under protection, and one that doesn't normally receive this kind of documentation. Eventually, however, the interest wears off and becomes a repetitive novelty, and its right around that point that Rushdie's failings as a husband (and his pettiness as a jilted lover) feverishly pick off what enjoyment is left, all while there's still pages to go. He doesn't deserve an ounce of what happened to him, but it's not like any sane person was making that argument in the first place.
Both Flesh And Not By David Foster Wallace, 2012
This collection of essays is as up and down as you would imagine for a book produced by the editorial brainiacs who put out the call for "whatever hasn't been reprinted in a book before". You're going to get off on some of them (the Terminator 2 and Federer pieces) while wishing others had been reworked when Wallace was older (the enfants terrible piece has some great stuff in it, and would have benefitted immensely from acknowledging the direction Bret Easton Ellis' career has taken). Others--the review of math books, for example--will be as difficult to get through now as they were when they were written. It seems besides the point to mention that this is a book for Wallace fans only, but what the hell: consider it mentioned.
Mr. Peanut By Adam Ross, 2010
The most unheralded and best of the meta-hybrid novels, Mr. Peanut takes a whole bunch of things that would be twee and unmoving anywhere else--like a book that incorporates an old television show's plot, internet computer whizzes who don't understand love, unholy idealizations of gorgeous woman, and an tricky you're-reading-what-they're-writing shtick--and turns out one of the most intense and unsettling books about masculinity and long-term relationships I can think of. It's so contemporary that parts of it already feel a little dated (you probably need to have grown up having seen The Fugitive and fuzzily remember the dot com boom for certain parts of this novel to really kick your ass, but that's possibly untrue), but that's part and parcel of a book that zeroes on so intensely on the nature of a few men and their relationship with the women they've been with the longest: they have to be grounded in a present, and the present goes stale immediately. There's stuff in here that isn't easy to handle, and that's why its weird novelistic take on being a crime/horror thriller works to its benefit--its a lot easier to acknowledge what you're doing wrong if the message gets delivered via a talking banana.
Eagle On The Street By David A Vise and Steve Coll, 1991
Could've been better, honestly. It seems like Coll and Vise at one point considered having this be about how SEC chief Shad's personal life kept him off the reservation, which might have worked (gross as it might be) and if that had been combined with the disturbing spousal abuse going on at the enforcement level, there was a general thesis that the various 80's banking scandals--which arguably set the groundwork for today's financial dificulties--was directly tied to the collapse of personal relationships and the emotional chaos that ensued when a bunch of guys tried to buck up and go to work despite the fact that they were emotionally unfit. That thesis would have made for a pretty interesting (albeit massively difficult to research) book. Instead this is just a collection of facts and anecdotes, pieced together by chronological order. It's an interesting collection of footnotes, but there's not enough of a book here.
Brotherhood of War: The Lieutenants By W.E.B. Griffin, 1982
Lovely melodramatic trash set amongst military types, a book that's most specifically interesting in the way it concerns itself almost wholly with absurdly perfect coincidences (one of which involves an affair of the heart), while able to acquit itself as knowledgeable mostly because of its hyper detailed background.
Brotherhood of War: The Captains By W.E.B. Griffin, 1982
It's sort of incredible that the guy got two of these out in one year, but then again, I had a hard time closing the door on Craig Lowell myself. Everybody calls one dude "the little Jew" to themselves, immediately, even when they aren't being portrayed as bigoted. Is that what you do? All the blacks are "very big, very black." This was the one where I started to feel like the guy who wrote these churned them out in one sitting.
Brotherhood of War: The Majors By W.E.B. Griffin, 1983
This one doesn't even have a war in it, just some part where a few of the major characters get shot down in Indochina and have to kill their way out. Instead, the book chooses to follow the Army's off-model decision to arm helicopters, which violated an agreement they had with the Air Force, who Griffin paints as being somewhere between an indignant ROTC unit and a club of mentally handicapped Cub Scouts. The best parts of this one are the parts with the sex, as Griffin gets to tell in detail the story of alcoholic marriage sex and the umpteenth first-time-for-both-of-us two minute stuff. "Are these still your favorite teats" is a line. That's a line. Good line!
Windeye By Brian Evenson, 2012
I've always been a fan of reading sentences where people describe a genre as being "calcified", but I've also become keenly aware in the last ten years that too many of the opinions I held were ones I purchased without consideration for their accuracy, and one of those opinions is that there's nothing to be found in the horror genre that can't be better found elsewhere. To give myself an out, I'd lay part of that on the generally accepted criticism that what we now label as horror is actually better known as a more grand guignol variation on thriller, and it's the existence of something like Windeye--which could unironically be called "Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, But For Serious Adults"--that puts all those psuedo-shit to bed. This isn't a vehicle for slice of life black humor or page-turning timekilling, it's a collection of work that does its best to remind one that the word "unnerve" shouldn't be thrown atop every random book that has a dead kid in it. Windeye fucks with ones sense of safety and sanity, it's a book that worms itself into your skin. The collection of stories here share mostly a similarity in tone, and yet they function as a piece, and by the close, you just want to walk in the sun, away from the world that Evenson creates. This is absolutely great writing--unique, intelligent and predatory. Highly recommended.
The Day of the Jackal By Frederick Forsyth, 1971
An intensely researched book whose detail will broadcast its journalist author's day job before one is halfway through the first chapter, Jackal is a book that both celebrates its classification as Airport & Waiting Room Classic while annihilating the categories implied ease of read. It whiles away the time, sure, but Forsythe's never-ending stream of hypen-heavy upper class names and governmental hierarchies joined with the impeccable taste of our titular assassin are going to demand more of the reader's concentration then the latest let's-slice-up-some-kids from James Patterson and Co. The reward is undoubtably worth whatever re-reading a redeye back-pedaler demands--Day of the Jackal is so easily a classic of the thriller genre that it's easy to start sneering at the word literature, eyefucking whatever imagined border guards are keeping the henpecked Claude Lebel and his monstrous counterpart from the ranks of throat-clearing English study. Then again, considering how miserably dumb that category has gotten--Tana French, anyone?--it wouldn't be too much of a stretch for Forsyth to have gone up to the majors already. Your move, Harold Bloom.
Blood Meridian Or The Evening Redness In The West By Cormac McCarthy, 1985
One of the greatest books ever written, or at least, that's what everybody says. It's true, but it's still a phrase that feels extreme to write, as it's essentially raw meat for the internet, a red cloth waved in the face of a well hung bull. It's also a well chewed over subject, with teeth marks from some of the smartest people who've ever written about literature, and thus the temptation to toss off a description is almost impossible, especially when the tosser can still wince in memory of the hyperbole that flowed when he first wrote about it (on Myspace, to spur the embarrassement further) while envying the opportunity to read the Judge's speech again, for the first time. The garden of war grew from the field of blood, and there's no purge that could ever cleanse this land. If this isn't hell, it should be.
The Postman Always Rings Twice By James M. Cain, 1934
Some of the tightest writing ever put down, The Postman Always Rings Twice beats the tar out of you for just a little over 100 pages, but it's a heavy book nonetheless. A drifter and another man's wife--there's only so many ways that story plays out, and Cain concocts one that's as nasty as it is romantic. I don't know about anybody else, but I never wanted to be a Raymond Chandler character, and I never wanted to meet a Jim Thompson one. But I'm pretty sure that I don't get that luxury of choice with Cain--these people are us, through and through.
A warts and all examination of a love affair so lacking in surprise that the struggle not to predict what's going to happen--as opposed to letting Roth tell you in his own time--becomes unwinnable more than halfway through, The Unknowns is respectable more as evidence of the completion of a task than it is as a novel. That might not be such a horrendous thing to some; after all, the notion of achievements, of levels, of a life tied up in self-imposed frameworks copied from video games, digital solutions and 21st Century self-improvement archana are internal to the guts of a million Americans, and the public awareness of one's accomplishments make up the dream of millions more. Seeing an American novel in full embrace of that language and fluid in that thinking makes sense. If the imagined life is a contest of accomplishments and goal-setting (as it's promoted to be in the American educational system), then Gabriel Roth did what he was supposed to do after the degree, the wife, and the baby: he got published. Where's your hardcover novel that namechecks old X-Men stories, buster?
Novels aren't dead--you'll notice that this claim almost invariably resides in the platitudes of people who don't read either way, the same way that no digital first proponent has ever been any good at recommending stuff you hadn't already heard of--but there's certain kinds of novels that aren't good at being timeless, and Contemporary Breakup is a classic example. If you want to see a 20-something cringe, have them read High Fidelity now; if you're particularly masochistic, try to re-read it yourself. The problem with giving The Unknowns the contemporary title belt in the she-dumped-me division is that the book itself is already dated, and it does it to itself, setting itself way back in the hoaried days of post-9/11 America, when Rumsfeld and Bush were aw-shucking their way into the invasion of Iraq. God bless him for trying, but on top of that: what Warby Parker wearing Arab Spring quoting reader wants to drink in the escapades of an Ecstasy-using, App-creating millionaire getting savaged by his first real girlfriend? Occupy this, motherfucker!
The Unknowns possesses a certain kind of post 90's male mania that's at times indistinguishable from the puberty-era teenage classics written by Judy Blume (and maybe Beverly Cleary). That those books often feature female characters doesn't give the comparison pause--if there's anything his shy protagonist most resembles, it's the gawky leads that populate teen high school girl fiction. The difficulty with Unknowns isn't that it's lead is too much a woman--if anything, his dextrous identity full of mixed gender cliches is actually the books most unheralded plus--it's that even if you put gender on the shelf, you're never going to mistake him for an adult. One of the charms of Blume and Cleary is in those open endings, the fact that they're books about children, which means we leave those characters before they've reached their prime--what we witnessed was the formative stuff, and outside of a macrabe, White Oleander-style riff, the formative stuff is universal. The life Roth presents--one where the crush of work is brushed off by its protagonists cursory success, one where fear and obsession are valued like postive attributes--is one that may resonate with some, but it's completely unexplored, and too curt to be fully realized. There's a great book to be made about sad nerds who won't grow up. This one isn't even good.