“What's your favorite first book by an author ever?” That's the question that launches the seventh year of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of our members and honorees. Here's the eighth in this new series. It's not too late to send your critical essay on your own favorite to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If considering American books since 1955 (a year when, pace Woolf, we could say the world changed again), I vote for Grace Paley's THE LITTLE DISTURBANCES OF MAN or Denis Johnson's ANGELS. Why Paley's story collection? Because hers was the unholy lovechild of two lines of American writing, one shaggy-dog Melvillean, gifted with an ear bent toward humor, her other parent a more sober Puritan interested in form. In one short, rhythmic, irreproachable book, Paley created an immigrant gothic that spawned heirs both open and more oblique, such as Carolyn Cooke's first collection THE BOSTONS.
And why Johnson's novel? Because he wrote with such moral urgency, a lapsed Catholic speaking the tongue of lyrical violence.
That said, to linger on 2014, in a few years I will still be touting this year's THE RESIDUE YEARS to the masses. Why? Mitchell S. Jackson stuns the reader from the start: his wordplay dances against great empathy, wit, visceral engagement. No one has told the story he tells with such heart and mind. Aware of the pitfalls of writing as a cultural ambassador — and preemptively deflecting such critique — Jackson imbues his work with the ethical purpose of our most beloved canonical works, such that the catharsis near novel's end remains as unforgettable as it is damning.