Criticism & Features

Year 2017: 30 Books

Tom Beer on Joan Silber’s ‘Improvement’

By Tom Beer

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tom Beer offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Joan Silber’s 'Improvement' (Counterpoint).


Some writers wow us with verbal pyrotechnics and wildly outrageous scenarios. Others ply their trade more quietly — relying on subtle language and profound insight into human nature, making art of everyday lives. Joan Silber belongs to the latter category, and nowhere are her gifts on better display than in her seventh work of fiction, 'Improvement.'

A novel that might also be classified as a tightly woven collection of linked stories, 'Improvement’s' eight chapters circulate out from Reyna, a tattooed single mom in New York. Reyna has a rambunctious four-year-old, Oliver; a free-spirited aunt Kiki; and a boyfriend, Boyd, spending three months on Rikers Island for selling four ounces of pot. When he gets out of jail, Boyd and some friends devise a plan to smuggle cigarettes from Virginia to New York and make some easy money. It’s a harmless enough scheme, but one that will have serious ramifications for these characters and others.

Chance, accidents, random encounters: The mysterious workings of fate are one of Silber’s great themes here — what else could bind this loose assemblage of characters together? So, too, is ambition, as the title, 'Improvement,' suggests. Reyna, Kiki, Boyd, and the others seek to improve their circumstances, both romantic and monetary. Silber views their strivings with an empathetic tenderness.

That authorial stance is reflected in the prose of 'Improvement,' which is colloquial and knowing and seemingly effortless. There is not a wasted word in all of the novel’s 227 pages, which nevertheless contain multitudes. Comparisons have been made to Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Lucia Berlin, Ali Smith — and this is certainly the company in which Silber belongs. 'Improvement' is the work of a great American literary voice. 



NBCC Balakian winner Charles Finch in The Washington Post.

Kamila Shamsie in The New York Times Book Review.

Tara Ison in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Rabeea Saleem in the Chicago Review of Books.

NBCC board member Tom Beer in Newsday.

Tom Beer is the books editor of Newsday and a past NBCC president