Friday, April 22, 2005

Judging Pen/Faulkner

I recently had the pleasure (sort of) of being one of the judges for the Pen/Faulkner Awards. It was a pleasure in many ways and certainly an honor. I only say "sort of" because receiving and reading 370-some books of fiction is a daunting prospect. It's terribly hard to give all those books fair consideration. In a way it's impossible and fairness has nothing to do with it. The best you can do as a judge is... Well, it's to do the best you can do, to take the responsibility seriously and to try to be as impartial and as broadminded as possible.

The other judges were Herbert Gold and Kathryn Harrison. We were all very different writers coming from very different perspectives, but I think in the end we worked well together. Instead of being the sort of ego battle these things often are we managed to listen to each other, to compromise, to think of the totality of the finalist list instead of getting too caught up with our own favorites. Without a doubt, some wonderful books didn't make it on to the list. Maybe I'll mention some of my favorites at a later date.

But I'm content with the list and the winner we came up with. They are The Green Lantern by Jerome Charyn, The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Prisoners of War by Steve Yarbrough. And the winner was War Trash by Ha Jin.

Among other things, I said this about War Trash...

"At the conclusion of War Trash I sat in awe at the journey Ha Jin's understated words had taken me on: travails of enormous political and personal complicity, wrung through with emotion that somehow manages to be both melancholy and clear-eyed, a story so complete in its breadth and depth that it stretches from the half-forgotten Korean war of the last century to the contemporary America of The Simpsons. I knew without question that War Trash was not only a great novel; it was an award winner of the highest order."

I also wrote the citation for Prisoners of War. Saying this...

"Yarbrough asks us to look at difficult aspects of our shared social history. He shows just how deeply people's lives are entwined, often so mysteriously that the players themselves cannot recognize the bonds. And he manages all this with writing that is deceptively humble, quietly sophisticated. Characters develop through their own words and deeds - even when one of these things contradicts the other - with subtlety and humor that almost masks the accurate depths of his portraiture. He is a compassionate writer who most rewards a careful reader, one who'll take the time to turn his prose over sentence by sentence."

And I wrote the citation for The Dew Breaker...

"Danticat draws brief, poignant sketches of her characters. She juxtaposes the crimes of the past with their aftermath and focuses on the emotional resonance that lingers on over lifetimes. We are reminded of the incredible resilience of the human character, even as we're asked to look into the face evil. The dew breaker may be the pivot around which these stories revolve, but this novel is really about how all these troubled characters share in the ongoing tragic drama that is Haiti."

So, we had some good books up there. I'm also proud of the diversity of the list. We had male and female writers, white, black, Asian writers, from the north, south, west and even one living abroad. Far too often book awards show a limited perspective on what our national literature is. I'm glad that we looked more broadly than that. And the thing is that it's not really that hard to come up with a diverse list. There are many worthy books written by a variety of people in the country every year. As judges we have only to require ourselves to look broadly. If you do the books will appear.

I don't think its necessary to have any sort of token system either. Of course I hoped to have books on the list by people of color. This meant that I looked and read carefully on that account. But if the books weren't there I wouldn't have pushed for lesser works to fill some designated slots. It can happen more organically than that. If you begin the search with the assumption that there ARE good books by people of color out there then there's a good chance you're going to find them AND/OR know them when you see them. Of course, it wasn't hard to find either Ha Jin or Edwidge Danticat. They were both deservedly on lists all over the place - except for the National Book Awards, of course.


Friday, April 15, 2005

A little more about the stars

I know this is decidedly after the fact, but as I'm starting up this blog thing I'm inclined to make up for some lost time. So herewith the pre-publication reviews Gabriel's Story received. These are the reviews mostly for the industry, for bookstores and libraries, and the type of things critics might take a look at when they're deciding to review a work for a mainstream audience. These were rather good. Actually, three of them were "Starred", which is supposed to indicate titles of particular note. Here's how they went...

Publishers Weekly

STARRED REVIEW - The old West, both beautiful and brutal, is the setting of Durham's magnificently realized debut novel, a classic coming-of-age story of an African-American boy. Shortly after the Civil War, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his mother and younger brother head out from Baltimore to meet Gabriel's new stepfather in Kansas, where the family hopes to make a fresh start as farmers. But Gabriel finds homesteading to be backbreaking and depressing and is soon lured away by cruel, charismatic Marshall Hogg, who's leading a group of cowboys down into Texas. It seems a dream come true for Gabriel, but then the nightmare begins. While bloated with whiskey, Marshall accidentally murders a man, precipitating a flight from the law that degenerates into a grotesque spree of burglary, rape, kidnapping and murder. Gabriel desperately wants to escape, but is prevented by Marshall's threats and the menacing presence of Caleb, a mute and shadowy figure. When Gabriel finally manages to free himself, the evil that he unwillingly witnessed follows him back homeAand threatens the people he loves most. Durham is a born storyteller: each step of Gabriel's descent into hell proceeds from the natural logic of the narrative itself, which manages to be inevitable even as it's totally surprising. Equally impressive is Durham's gift for describing the awful beauty of the American West: "The April sky was not a thing of air and gas," writes Durham. "Rather it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie." The tale's racial dimension is subtly and intelligently developed, and though some readers may be turned off by the violence Gabriel witnesses, all will be impressed by Durham's maturity, skill and lovingly crafted prose. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Jan. 16) Forecast: Durham's view of 1800s history through the eyes of a hopeful African-American boy adds a new dimension to the perennially appealing theme of the lure of the West. Doubleday seems ready to get behind this novel with focused promotion, including an author tour; readers may take notice.


STARRED REVIEW - In 1871, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his younger brother, Ben, and their mother, Eliza, arrive in Crownsville, Kansas. Gabriel is angry with his lot in life, particularly with his mother, who has taken him from his home in the East and his dream of becoming a doctor to a homestead on the plains and a stepfather, Solomon, whom he has barely met. Soon Gabriel befriends another dissatisfied youth, James, and the two innocent African American boys run away from their troubles in search of adventure with a band of cowboys. The road they've chosen becomes a perilous one, taking them across the American West with men prone to violence and pursued by their own demons. On this journey from home and back, one could conclude that Gabriel discovers what he values, but one also sees the enactment of that old saying about the grass being greener on the other side. And the surfeit of symbolism (for example, picture Eliza crossing troubled waters) will have critics salivating. Nevertheless, the circular movement of the plot is devastatingly powerful, particularly the embedded coming-of-age story involving the leader of the cowboys, Marshall Hogg, and his chief companion, the black Caleb. First-time novelist Durham acknowledges the influence of Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy, and Durham's novel does recall McCarthy's work in its juxtaposition of the pristine beauty and spaciousness of the land with the raw violence of the men come to carve a civilization out of it. Yet, perhaps because of the African American family and the skillful manipulation of myths, Durham posits a slant on the settlement of the West that speaks to the essential multicultural character of the nation. Durham is a storyteller touched by an angel.

Kirkus Reviews

STARRED REVIEW - Intensely dramatic debut, set in Kansas and points west and southwest during the 1870s: a direct homage to Cormac McCarthy's highly praised fiction (both his Blood Meridian and the recent Border Trilogy) but also an original work of high distinction. The protagonist, teenaged Gabriel Lynch, arrives from the East with his widowed mother Eliza and younger brother Ben at a train station where they're met by her husband-to-be, Solomon Johns, a farmer who had been Eliza's first love before her life with the boys' father, a prosperous middle-class Baltimore mortician. Gabriel resents the opportunities lost, and the hard life they're introduced to, and eagerly leaves "home," joining another black boy (James) to ride with a group of cattle drovers. A bloodthirsty odyssey ensues, as the gang's embittered leader Marshall Hogg (an amoral fatalist straight out of Dostoevsky) directs his minions to steal, rape, and murder, ever moving on, through Mexico, Arizona, and the Rockies, en route to California - away from the avengers who slowly, methodically pursue them. Durham tells this story with great skill, weaving together a beautifully plotted central action and extended italicized passages detailing the embattled growth to manhood of the stoical Ben and the steely determination of a bereaved Mexican soldier who'll follow Hogg to hell and back. Meanwhile, he also depicts with hallucinatory vividness the enigmatic figure of Hogg's second-in-command Caleb, a black drover who never speaks, and harbors a terrible secret indeed. The only flaw in the narrative is Durham's inexplicable tendency toward an abstract rhetoric clearly influenced by both the aforementioned McCarthy and his major influence, Faulkner, which often produces moments of ludicrous and vague grandiosity (e.g., watching Caleb," Gabriel thought him some dark figure of the apocalypse"). Such moments aside, Gabriel's Story grates on the reader's nerves unerringly, and frequently rises to real grandeur. A brilliant example of how to assimilate and transmute powerful literary influence. And what a movie this dark, haunting tale will make.

Library Journal

A Wild West debut: forced by his mother's remarriage to move from New York City to a sod house in Kansas, Gabriel decides to run away and become a cowboy.

Uh, well, that's all Library Journal had to say. No star there, although looking at that review I'm inclined to say it wasn't really a review. They "mentioned" the book, but didn't choose to assign it. No matter, they were very kind to Walk Through Darkness a year. They gave that one a star. And then they gave Pride of Carthage a star too, as did Publisher's Weekly and Booklist. Kirkus didn't, but they still wrote a helluva review. So all told, for three novels since 2001, I've received seven starred reviews. I think that's more than all but a few writers, and I don't think any African-American writers have received more stars in this time period. I'm proud of that. Didn't exactly lead to massive sales, but I'm working on that...