A Block, a Company, and a Region 

This month in books, a master reporter, an annoying literary experiment, and a monumental writer.

Lush Life, Richard Price

When many authors pen "ambitious" novels, they overstuff their books with tedious minutiae and infinitesimal details about arcane subjects that they've recently become expert in. Whether ticking off the contents of a vagabond magician's bag of tricks, or painting six-page tableaux of whaling boat mess halls, some are so eager to show off their savant-y knowledge that readers have to wonder if the writer learned anything in the course of his research that didn't make the book's final edit.

Richard Price, on the other hand, betrays his cellular familiarity with the Lower East Side in Lush Life, his riveting ninth novel, without once sounding like he's broken a sweat. Price is the ultimate New York tour guide, possessed with nuanced understandings of Manhattan's streetcorners, dialects, architectural history, police procedures, immigrant sweatshops, and racial tensions, all which are employed, flourish-free, in Lush Life.

Price was a writer for The Wire, and fans of HBO's gritty, operatic crime show will love this book. Price's fluent grasp of police procedure and wary suspiciousness is devastating. Lush Life's strongest moment comes right after the murder: Price devotes thirty pages to the activities of one patch of sidewalk as Detective Matty Clark tries to get a handle on the ensuing chaos. Without leaving the block, Price details a microcosm of gut instincts, lies, secrets, and social complexity within the touchy Lower East Side. Price follows this with eighty pages on Detective Clark's first sleepless 24 hours on the case, and the prose is as pounding and rich as anything you can imagine.

The last novel that kept me reading under the covers so late into the night was Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Both falling under the cloak of pulpy genre writing, each is written with a mastery of craft and sharpened philosophical inquiry, matched only by the breathtaking intensity of protagonists trapped in a tightening vice. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 587 pages, $26)

— Chas Bowie

Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris

Compared ad nauseam by literary critics to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and newly released in paperback, Joshua Ferris' debut novel Then We Came to the End doesn't live up to the hype. While amusing and spot-on, the clinging gimmickry of the novel's collective first-person voice ("We walked to the cafeteria"; "We gathered in her cubicle") never transcends the boredom and frustration of its setting, a pre-dot-com-bust era advertising agency in Chicago.

Focusing on a large ensemble of office dwellers in a time of impending unemployment, Ferris nails the uncertainty of layoffs and dwindling business. The looming fear is palpable as the corporate "we" struggles to look busy and stave off depression. "One crap ad could make the difference between the person they kept on and the one they let go. ... When we had trouble nailing an ad, our reputations were on the line. A good deal of our self-esteem was predicated on the belief that we were good marketers, that we understood what made the world tick — that in fact, we told the world how to tick." As a copywriter myself in an ad agency circa 2000, Then We Came to the End couldn't more accurately capture a time and a feeling. Without a doubt, Ferris slams it home.

But for all of its accuracies of tone, setting, and atmosphere, Ferris' novel doesn't invite emotional investment from the reader. With a cast of seemingly thousands, there aren't many hooks on which to hang your hat; the characters end up blending together in the first-person-plural soup. The "we" narration feels like a deliberately manipulative attempt to ape the conspiratorial tone of your gossiping co-worker.

Midway through the novel, the narration briefly switches to third person, centering on an emotional time in the life of Lynn, the boss. She is struggling with her loneliness on the night before a mastectomy. It's an intense and effective chapter that finally provides that proverbial hat hook — and it should be noted that it's one of the rare moments in the book set outside the office.

Make no mistake, Then We Came to the End is not without its merits — but that's also part of its undoing. Do you really want to spend your evening hours reading a book that accurately describes your workday? (Back Bay Books, 416 pages, $13.99)

— Courtney Ferguson

Wallace Stegner and the American West, Philip L. Fradkin

One measure of success for a book like Philip L. Fradkin's Wallace Stegner and the American West (Knopf, 369 pages, $27.50) is whether it inspires readers to take up books by the biographer's subject. At a minimum, readers will want to dip into Stegner's two big novels — the autobiographical Big Rock Candy Mountain and the controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose — as well as his iconic portrait of explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Stegner combined elements of autobiography, history, geography, and pure imagination in almost everything he wrote — in ways that often landed him in trouble. Fradkin's book is a handy field guide to these literary fault lines as well as an astute assessment of Stegner's legacy as both a teacher and a conservationist.

The author devotes a lot of room to Stegner's formative years, which included Huck Finn-style adventures with lethal firearms, being forced to live in an orphanage while both his parents were still alive, coping with a booze-smuggling father who ran gambling dens and speakeasies, and falling in love with two very different women in rapid succession — one of whom makes a surprise reappearance in the epilogue. As monumental a writer as Stegner was in his own right, his role as founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University would define the literature of the American West for the second half of the 20th century. Writers as various as Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Peter S. Beagle, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Evan S. Connell, Thomas McGuane, Scott Turow, N. Scott Momaday, and Barry Lopez either studied under Stegner or confessed a creative debt to him. And despite a heart as big as the great outdoors, Stegner emerges as a sometimes petty academic infighter who was prone to nurse a grudge.

This is the first Stegner biography to examine the Angle of Repose "plagiarism" controversy in careful detail, and Fradkin offers a painstakingly fair analysis. If Fradkin errs, it is to lend Stegner's critics too much credence. He persists in comparing the dispute to the plagiarism controversies that would later swirl around historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose cases were entirely different. Ambrose and Goodwin were celebrity hacks who, succumbing to sloppiness and overwork, misrepresented the words and ideas of others as their own. The Stegner brouhaha stemmed from his use of the letters and journals of a mostly forgotten Western artist, Mary Hallock Foote, as the launching point for a fictional novel — something he did with the full knowledge and permission of the Foote estate. Fradkin's may not be the last word on this complex topic, but it should serve as the definitive one. (Knopf, 384 pages, $27.50)

— Matt Buckingham


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