Pulitzer Reflections

Way back in January 2013, I made a New Year’s resolution to read six Pulitzer Prize-winning novels during the coming year and then to reflect upon them in this column. I kept only half that promise. I read the books but am only now—almost halfway into 2014—realizing that I never wrote about them.

Better late than never, I suppose. So here goes.

My plan was to read “A Confederacy of Dunces” (John Kennedy Toole, 1981), “Gilead” (Marilynn Robinson, 2005), “The Killer Angels” (Michael Shaara, 1975), “Middlesex” (Jeffrey Eugenides, 2003), “The Reviers” (William Faulkner, 1963) and “A Visit from the Good Squad” (Jennifer Egan, 2011).

For the most part, I succeeded. I didn’t read “Goon Squad,” even though it came highly recommended by several people with tastes similar to mine. Instead, I substituted “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” (Michael Chabon, 2001) because its author was scheduled to speak at Tennessee Tech last October. So let’s start with that one.

Set in New York City in the l940s, “Kavalier and Clay” tells the story of cousins Samuel Klayman and Joe Kavalier who, with the shadow of Hitler looming large, fight evil—both real and imagined—in the pages of the comic books they create. This is a long (704 pages) and intricately layered book but well worth the effort, particularly when the payoff is meeting the author. I award it Best of Show.

Coming in second best on my list is “Middlesex,” which begins with this sentence: “I was born twice, first as a baby girl…in January 1960, then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room in August 1974.” How can you not keep reading? If you’re interested the Greek-immigrant experience in Detroit or prohibition or incest or the plight of the American auto worker or hermaphroditism, you’ll find this book hard to put down.

With July came the sesquicentennial observance of the Battle of Gettysburg–the perfect time to read “The Killer Angels.” Shaara’s amazing work of historical fiction tells the story of the bloody four-day battle through the eyes of Confederate and Union commanders as no other novel ever has.

I’ve read some strange books in my time, but none so bizarre as “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Its rollicking portrayal of New Orleans and one of its most unique inhabitants—Ignatius J. Reilly—was deemed unpublishable until writer Walker Percy and the late John Kennedy Toole’s mother convinced LSU Press to give it a second look. The Pulitzer was awarded posthumously, twelve years after “Dunces’s” author committed suicide.

I fear that I’m just not sophisticated enough to understand or appreciate William Faulkner. “The Reviers” is his last novel and is considered by many literary scholars to be a work of comic genius. I confess to being so unamused by it that I quit reading before I finished, something I rarely do. But I did watch the entire 1969 movie, which I also found interminable.

But even “The Reviers” was better than “Gilead,” the tale of three generations of fathers and sons told through letters written by a 76-year-old preacher to his seven-year-old son. I have only one word for this novel: YAWN.

As to which Pulitzer-winners I plan to read in 2014, all I can say for certain is that “The Grapes of Wrath” is on the list. And, unless I get tripped up again, “Goon Squad.”

(June 15, 2014)

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