Brian Panowich and David Joy go together like dark alcohol and a heavy glass. I read their novels fairly close to each other and befriended the authors on Twitter, so I didn’t have the heart to split them up.
As I said in “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books,” Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain follows the Burroughs clan throughout several decades in the North Georgia Mountains. At the center of the story stands Clayton Burroughs, the sheriff of Waymore Valley, an honest man standing at the foot of a corrupt mountain. A shadowy Federal agent gives him an opportunity by to finally extricate his family name from drug running and death, however, his hillbilly crime lord brother wants no part of any such redemption.
The narrative spans several generations of Burroughs men, always at odds with themselves, their kin, and the innocent bystanders in their wake. As with many of the other crime novels we’ve featured on Writer’s Bone, this one shines because of its literary dedication to its main characters. They feel as old and familiar as the book’s mountain setting and are hardwired into the plot in a dramatically complex way.
Panowich is also a helluva talker (as you’ll hear in the podcast below).
Joy’s novel is pure Southern noir poetry. As I mentioned in “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books” (are you sensing a pattern?), you’d swear some of the perfectly crafted lines in this work swam out of a high-end bottle of bourbon, picked up the first shotgun they saw, and blasted their way through Appalachia.
He also said one of the most insightful things about the writing process I’ve heard in all the interviews we’ve done this year: “I need one good sentence before I can move forward.” It’s true for a lot of writers and I like how Joy’s method led to Where All the Light Tends to Go's lyrical style.
I’ve been hearing good things about his follow up, so restock your bourbon shelf and finish off his debut so you can devour the next one!
4. The Tusk That Did All the Damage by Tania James
Tania James’ The Tusk That Did the Damage completely charmed me. She utilized three narrators—including an elephant named The Gravedigger!—and weaved a tragic story while providing a deep back story for each one. When you’re not rooting for the resilient, emotionally broken elephant, you’ll be ensorcelled by a young man whose loyalty to his poacher brother knows no bounds, or troubled by the passive-aggressive filmmaking shooting a documentary on an elephant rehabilitation clinic.
She may have also won her way into the top five with this tweet:
3. My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
One of the hallmarks of a great novel is how badly you want to get it into the hands of everyone you know. I’m pretty sure my copy of M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away has made its way into the hands of just about every member of my family at this point.
Walsh’s crisp style and thought-provoking prose combines both literary fiction and a pulse-quickening thriller. Set in Baton Rouge, La., the novel explores the nature of “violent crime, unraveling families, and consuming adolescent love.” Fair warning, if you pick up this book in the store and read the first chapter, you’re going to end up buying it and throwing out the rest of your reading queue immediately.
I truly loved this novel and couldn’t be happier that Gary Almeter brought it up during our recent Friday Morning Coffee conversation. It made me remember the great experience I had reading the book and interviewing the author (podcast below).
2. God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Legér
In our first interview, Dimitry Elias Legér told me, “I put my heart and soul into God Loves Haiti.” As I said in my February review, Léger’s heart and soul is evident on every page, every line of dialogue, and in every character.
Maybe I’m biased because Legér is a St. John’s alum, like myself, but his exploration of Haiti during the 2010 earthquake made my heart goudou-goudou. There’s also a scene in the middle of the novel that involves a woman locking her naked lover in a closet. The nude escape that ensues struck such a human note in the midst of a tragedy that I was laughing and crying at the same time (you’ll also be weeping at the ending, which still gets to me all these months later). If the resiliency, love, and, yes, humor, of Léger’s characters doesn’t make your heart goudou-goudou, then you should seek medical attention immediately.
He also gets bonus points for recording Writer’s Bone’s first Skype interview!
1. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
I read most of Chigozie Obioma’s pitch perfect debut The Fishermen while on a bus headed back home to visit my parents for Easter. Perhaps it was the interaction with my own brothers that made this book stick with me so much. Maybe I saw my mother and father in the two parents trying to hold a family together in the face of suffering. Maybe it was making every local stop known to man between Hartford and Boston that made me savor every sentence, character, and theme.
The novel is set in 1990s Nigeria and tells the heart-wrenching and bloody tale of four brothers whose lives are changed on the banks of a haunted river. Benjamin, the story’s 9-year-old narrator, attempts to makes sense of the changing world around him as his family is torn apart by a madman’s prophecy. The Fishermen begins so lightheartedly—the reader is led to believe that this is another coming-of-age story set in a foreign location—that later events crush you even more. It’s a book that should inspire you to craft your own great art. The best authors light a fire under you, and I can assure you, Obioma will be lighting fires for years to come.
It’s quite simply the best book I read all year. Obioma may not have won the Man Booker Prize, but I hope he can take solace in topping our humble list (and he better be working on his next book!).