There is no shortage of novels to savor this fall from writers connected to our state’s vibrant community of prose. Here are three we highly recommend.
In Behind the Moon by Madison Smartt Bell (City Lights Books, 280 pages, $21.95) Julie cuts school to explore the Badlands with her girlfriend (Karyn), a guy she likes (Jamal) and two less trustworthy guys (Marko and Sonny). The surreal quality of the book begins after Julie unknowingly drinks drug-laced vitamin water and begins to see the everyday with new insights. When the situation turns more dangerous, Jamal helps her make a break for it—but during her escape she falls down a shaft and lands, unconscious, in a cave adorned with ancient cave paintings. Jamal helps save her, but the “cave girl” is hospitalized, in a coma for weeks. A second storyline involves the mother who gave Julie up, and these two storylines revolve around one another and often intersect.
What brings this novel to life from page one, and makes it such a page-turner to the end, is how effectively Bell puts the reader there with Julie and her mother during their spiritual journeys, meditations and dreams. Moon, appropriately enough, is not straight like an arrow (as time is described in one passage of the book) but round like the moon. That makes for an experience this reader won’t soon forget.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 368 pages, $28) is probably unlike any novel you’ve ever read. It begins when a grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln visits his son Willie in the graveyard after Willie’s death from typhoid at 11. The book’s three main narrators—who are in the “Bardo,” a limbo state between life and death—admire the love the president shows to his son. Understanding that the young are “not meant to tarry,” the three attempt to use the elder Lincoln’s sorrow to encourage Willie to move on.
The President is in his own personal Bardo as he contemplates how he can carry on—realizing all too well that his loss is just one compared to the thousands he’s partially responsible for as he oversees the Civil War. Likewise, the ghosts who narrate this novel must shake their own ignorance and leave their self-imposed purgatory for what is to come. Lincoln in the Bardo is full of sorrow, but reading it is a joy.
The staggering scope of the final months before the fall of Saigon are hard to grasp. The best way to relay the truth of a situation so immense is to make a reader feel it, to rely not on statistics or borders, but one person’s experience. With Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 366 pages, $29.95), Tom Glenn accomplishes this, inviting the reader to share in the pains (and limited pleasures) of the final days before the fall of Saigon.
Glenn is not only a seasoned writer; he is well-qualified to tell this story. Although Annamese is a fictional account, the book leans heavily on his own experiences as one of the last U.S. intelligence officers in Saigon—barely escaping the falling city himself by helicopter, under enemy fire.
Annamese is as much a love story as it is a war story, and includes an unusual love triangle with Chuck Griffin, a former Marine and current intelligence officer; Thanh, a South Vietnamese Marine colonel; Tuyet, the woman they both love; and her son, Thu. The book focuses on their experiences as the end of the Vietnam War brings an end to a city, and an entire people.
With prose that alternates between gentle and brutal, Glenn’s novel aches with empathy. The stark realities of love and war, loyalty and betrayal, and doing or accepting dishonorable things for honorable reasons are explored—filtered through a compassionate lens. Glenn’s gripping novel will leave you pondering the main character’s question: Do all memories have to hurt?
Eric D. Goodman is the author of Womb: A Novel in Utero (Merge, 2017). Learn more about his writing at EricDGoodman.com.