Those of you who know me personally are familiar with my background: born in northern Idaho; grew up in eastern Oregon; fell off a turnip truck.
Fortunately for me, there was that brilliant and misplaced English teacher at Nyssa High School. If not for the late Clyde Swisher (who should have been teaching in a college), I may still be rolling in the dust of said turnip truck. And then there was my two years as an English major at Whitman College–a bloodbath to say the very least…but also the beginnings of a first-rate education.
These days I almost despise literary fiction. Some of it is fine if you don’t call it that in my presence. One of the nicest literary surprises of 2010 was my discovery of Jess Walters, a Spokane-based novelist whose Citizen Vince is a masterpiece. It’s the story of a man who, through the witness protection program, has been relocated to Spokane, Washington, where he works in a donut shop and makes most of his money at late-night high-stakes poker games.
The book deftly explores Spokane subcultures none of us have reason to know. And then there is Vince, who one day decides that he wants to be part of the world around him. He wants to be a citizen, to vote, to own a house, and to clean up his checkered past.
Vince does not know how to do the things he must to realize his new life. His stumbling efforts are at once sad, humorous, touching, and violent. They bear the unmistakable mark of truth. This is literary fiction of the first order, but it also is a ripping good story.
And then there is Paul Harding’s Tinkers, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The mere story line–a man dying of cancer reviewing his life–was the first deal-breaker for me. After last year, my first thought was: You have got to be kidding.
I gave it my best shot. Thirty pages. A lot of purple prose–beautiful sentences. Pulitzer Prize. Really?
A month later, long after book group (they didn’t like it either), I picked it up again. Another thirty-or-so pages. Some more beautiful sentences. Not cancer the way I know Cancer. An interesting anecdote about a hermit who lived in the woods. Pulitzer Prize. REALLY!?!?!
I wonder: is it OK for a novel to have a story? Is it OK to want a character I can relate to in some way, however small–Olive Kitterege, Randall McMurphy, Vince, Lisbeth Salander, Molly-fucking-Bloom? Is this too much to ask? I think vaguely of the turnip truck.