I'm all about emotional impact. I appreciate a clever twist or a brilliant storyline but one of the enduring phrases from my youth is from Harvey with Jimmy Stewart and his pooka pal the invisible rabbit. "You can be oh so clever or oh so pleasant. For years I tried clever. I'd suggest pleasant." Meaning, it's good to be clever, but don't be cocky about it. These writers are clever, but they aren't about being clever. They pack a wallop with their stories and it's not there to shock, but to shake... to shake you out of jaded ordinary life and make you think, or heaven forfend, care.
So here are my favorite reads of the year. You may truncate them to five or ten to make a handy list.
Out There Bad, by Josh Stallings
A strong new voice and a powerful character blasting onto the scene, Mo McGuire is a dark hero, a wounded warrior, who dares shove our face in the evil we tolerate every day. This is the second book by Stallings and kicked my ass. He takes you on a hellride through L.A.'s human meat grinder and hunts it to its source with a two chilling and remorseless killers at his back. Moses is forced to acknowledge his own complicity as a strip club bouncer, and learns what it takes to stand up for those he cares about. L.A. has a new crime boss, it just doesn't know it yet: and his name is Stallings.
The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott
The most daring novel of the year, exposing the rotten heart of suburbia. This one's on a lot of end of the year best-of lists and I will smugly say I TOLD YOU SO. Back when I reviewed it this summer. Nya nya nya NYA nya. A profoundly disturbing look at the dangers young women face on the verge of womanhood, and a story that will defy your attempts to predict its outcome. When Lizzie's best friend is abducted, she begins her own investigation... starting with the secrets only best friends would share.
Choke Hold, by Christa Faust
It flies like classic pulp, it reads like truth and it hits you with a smart left hook that leaves you as stunned as a fighter wobbling through his first standing eight-count. There are no slick twists, only artfully written characters, broken down gladiators from the sex and violence trades who've battled for our entertainment. They are writ large but speak to a deeper truth. Angel always lands on her feet, but the fear level was the highest for me in this one. The axe is always ready to fall.
Crimes in Southern Indiana, by Frank Bill
A brutal emotional dispatch from the war zone in your backyard. The debut of the year, this is blood feud poetry. Desperate situations where beat-down people stand on the line between what they know is wrong and sheer survival in a hardscrabble emotionally jagged landscape. Staring into the abysmal latrine of humanity, it is easy to sink to nihilism, to embrace the banality of evil, but Frank Bill refuses to take the easy road. People beyond forgiveness seek mere understanding. Desires criss-cross and hurtle together like jalopies down a one lane dirt road. Anyone can write brutality. Giving it a dark but honest human heart takes guts and a keen sense of people, and this novel speaks volumes of messy truth.
Pym, by Mat Johnson
Not a crime novel, but one of the funniest and honest books on race and English literature I've ever read. It turns a brutally racist Poe tale on its head and has a snicker on every page while doing it. An African-American professor of African-American studies is fired because he won't be the token African-American on the diversity committee. While looking for a slave narrative to base his next thesis on, he finds an intriguing document that suggests Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was based on fact, and gathers together a crew to find the islands it described. A bizarre and hilarious adventure through American literature commences, and not a week goes by where I don't think of this book.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
The grandmaster shows us how it's done, returning to a place in Matt Scudder's past where he was less experienced and more vulnerable. There is little action, but you can't tell from the tension level. No one writes New York like Mr. Block, and he explores new ground by taking us to Scudder's past. A crook in AA is killed when he begins asking forgiveness, and Matt needs to know why. With his usual bulldog tenacity he explores a rogue's gallery of human frailty while keeping a slippery grip on his own sobriety. I liked the story, the mystery of High Low Jack's murder and his shady past, but the characters are what keeps this book in my mind.
The Weight by Andrew Vachss
Character-driven fiction at its best, we meet "Sugar," a weightlifter and con who takes the rap on a crime he didn't commit to protect his crew. What happens after he takes the weight is nothing you'd expect. Mentors and feet of clay, and a lead you'd trust to spot you under the bar when the weight is damn heavy.
Frank Sinatra in a Blender, by Matthew McBride
From the title, to its meaning, to its hard-drinking anti-hero and fully-fleshed hard luck villains, not since early Carl Hiaasen has vicious comedy of human existence been so entertainingly portrayed. I still sometimes remember a scene or a line, stare into space and laugh, and everyone around me takes a few steps away from me. Just a great read.
Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski
It plays on Hollywood conspiracies and the starlet meat grinder, all while telling a fast paced, thrilling and very funny tale. Duane the Brain can come up with stories I can't even imagine, and he fleshes them out with hilarious and cynical prose that keeps the pages turning.
Headstone by Ken Bruen
My introduction to Ken's unique style and fierce heart, I am told this isn't the best Jack Taylor novel. All that means is the others are even better. A back alley tour of Galway, a city I've only seen as a tourist, that was a hell of an eye opener. Taylor tackles mindless hate and nihilism and tears its tongue out at the roots. He fears no evil and leaves no villain spared. Truly excellent writing from a master I will read every word of, before I die.
The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell
I let this slip by because it's a short story collection. But these stories, like Crimes in Southern Indiana, are all about a place and a people and make a patchwork that becomes a tapestry as you step back. This was my introduction to Mr. Woodrell, and I've picked up several of his novels since. He has an economy with words that leans toward poetry, and a blood-borne knowledge of the human heart. This is an excellent introduction to the author, who'd be called the Raymond Carver of the Ozarks... if he wasn't an equally adept novelist as short story master.
© 2011 Thomas Pluck