Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Maine-litzer

When this year's Pulitzer Prize committee declined to name a fiction winner, one of my fellow library consultants decided that she would set up her own committee to pick a winner for the "Maine-litzer."  (We're from Maine -- we'll show those critics how to pick a winner!)  So, for the last few months Maine librarians and friends have taken on the challenge of reading  the 2012 Pulitzer fiction nominees - "The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace, "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell, and "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson.  The deadline for voting is near and I've just about completed the assignment.

First I read "Train Dreams," a wonderfully written story of love, loss, survival, and pioneering in the Far West around the turn of the 20th Century.  It is a short novel that was a previously published prize-winning story in "The Paris Review" from about ten years ago.  The author has created a strong sense of place and life.  He has also thrown in a bit of folklore which figures prominently at the conclusion.  Robert Granier faces challenges from the time he's born an orphan.  He's a stoic man who lives life simply and is able to accept all that life throws at him. A very enjoyable read and a quick one, too.

Next on the docket was "The Pale King."  Because of its length, nearly 600 pages, and the fact that I'm a slow reader, I opted to listen to it.  What an audio and reading treat.  The transcript for the book was discovered after Wallace's death and was edited by Michael Pietsch, who very lovingly birthed the book.    Focusing on what can best be described as a rag-tag group of IRS employees who are as quirky and nerdy as we have been accustomed to see them portrayed Wallace tackles the hum drum of everyday life and turns it into a hilarious reading adventure.  This is a book that I wish I had had to read at some point in my career as a student.  Why? Because I could have written a really good paper, and a long one at that.  And, I have to admit that I'm not so sure I would have enjoyed the reading experience as much if it hadn't been an audio endeavor.

Finally, it was time to begin "Swamplandia!."  This is Russell's first novel and to say that it has been well-received is a bit of an understatement.  It is the tragi-comedic story of a family mired in a dubious existence in an alligator-themed amusement park on an island off the coast of Florida.  The mother, who is the star performer, passes away, leaving the family adrift.  Just the names of the children - Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava - give a good indication of the unusual nature of the story.  They live a very odd existence to say the least, which invites a great deal of pathos from the reader and a need to suspend belief at times. As a Pulitzer nominee, of course it's well-written and well-imagined, just as I like my fiction to be.  However, I am having a hard time in getting this book to hold my interest.  It's taking me a long time to read this and I'm still only half-way through.  I doubt that I will have this finished in time for the final vote, but I will persevere and get it done at some point in time.

While reading critically for book clubs for years and for selecting materials for libraries' collections, this challenge was a bit different. I was constantly asking myself - why this book?  How did it get to be nominated?  Is it really that good?  It bothered me a bit that "Train Dreams" was previously published as a story and that "The Pale King" required significant editing without the benefit of the author's input.  Did that make "Swamplandia!" the only really pure qualifier for such a distinguished prize?  I had to put that thought out of my mind more than a few times.  Maybe those are the same doubts that the Committee had and is why they couldn't decide.

Well, even though I haven't finished the third book, my mind is made up.  My vote is for "The Pale King."  Think of it this way - anyone who can make the IRS such a compelling read and address life in such a large way deserves the prize. I can only imagine how absolutely more wonderful the book would have been if Wallace had stuck around to finish it.

By the way, if you want a bit more insight into the Pulitzer selection process and reaction to the Committee's decision to to forego the fiction award for the first time in 40-plus years, read Pulitzer juror Michael Cunningham's pieces in "The New Yorker."  An excellent defense of choices for the finalists or a rant at the jurors' selections being snubbed?  You decide. As always, the readers' comments are just as good.

By the way, the winner?  "Swamplandia" by a mile.