Here are the best books I read in 2012, a listing which, unlike every other critic’s list, is not limited to books published in 2012. Most readers don’t read books published in the past year, so why should we limit our best-of lists to such an irrelevant criterion? Each of these books stood out for some combinations of psychological insight, scholarly digging, journalistic derring-do, and plain old-fashioned storytelling.
The Power Broker, by Robert Caro (1974)
Any American or anyone who wants to know how American cities work needs to read this celebrated history. Caro earned all kinds of accolades this year for the fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and The Power Broker shares the obsessive detail and narrative brio that series is praised for. The subtitle, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, sums up this massive tale of how Moses acquired municipal power in New York City beginning in the nineteen-teens and proceeded to build on a scale unseen in human history. Every bridge, every parkway, every beach, every park, every playground, every tunnel, every overpass, anything that could convey a car in to and out of the five boroughs of New York City – it was all under Moses’s iron control. Caro goes deep into Moses’s psyche to investigate the raw need for having such power at his disposal, and equally far (if not further) into the city’s records and financial data to show the massive fiscal outlay required to achieve Moses’s vision. What emerges is a portrait of arrogance, racism, classism, and sheer intellectual firepower (each of which Moses held in equal reserve), and, ultimately, the story of how Things Get Done in America. The Power Broker is 1,200 pages long before you even get to the end-notes, weighs about five pounds, and yet the narrative thread never goes slack, or the heat of Caro’s prose goes cold. I carried it around for three months on almost every daily commute, and regretted not a second of it.
Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan (2011)
Sullivan is a gracious, polite, reserved guide to what Greil Marcus would call the “old, weird America,” except that Sullivan gets mighty acquainted with the current, weird America. This volume collects his long-form magazine pieces and the end result is a tour through various American by-ways that, as the cliche goes, few of us will ever see very intimately. He tells of his brother getting electrocuted, a Christian-music festival, the comeback of Axl Rose, and what it’s like to have your house featured as the abode of the main characters on a TV drama. The tone is always sympathetic and warm, and, basically, you always feel like things will be OK, even when they aren’t. Whether this reflects his Louisville upbringing, basic American goodness, or Southern gentility, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I read an article every night before going to sleep, and never stopped an essay before Sullivan had finished it.
Seldom have such clearly seen characters been rendered so expertly, and in such a way that they live on long after you read about them. The pacing is superb, the dialogue impeccable, and the sheer love and empathy McCullers displays makes my heart and mind ache as to why it took me so long to read her debut novel.
Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner (1936)
Continuing what’s turned into a Southern writers-themed list, Faulkner’s tale of the diabolical Thomas Sutpen serves as a mind-bending discourse into the history of the South, slavery, the Civil War, and human nature, all told in a Modernist style that takes no prisoners, brooks no arguments, and bends the reader to its will. Much like Sutpen did with anyone who came into his orbit. But for all the narrative difficulty, the story is always clear, and the conclusion, as with McCullers’s, slams the ending to a close with the finality of an ax blow. To bring this full circle, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote a memorable essay last summer about Absalom, Absalom!.
I Hadn’t Understood, by Diego de Silva (2007, translated in English 2012)
This comic novel delivers the laughs as Vincenzo Malinconico analyzes everything from his falling-apart marriage to his daughter’s name (even how she became his daughter could fill a novella), Italian pop music hits, the anatomy of love, women’s desire for “a center of gravity” in all things, his lack of legal prowess, and his furniture (everything described by its IKEA name). An updated version of Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, I Hadn’t Understood likewise follows the first-person narrator through the labyrinthine, circuitous, workings of their minds as they perpetually seek to understand the world and their relationship to it, and are perpetually stymied at every turn. Svevo, being a Northern Italian, is cooler and tries to be more rational, while the Neapolitan Malinconico pursues his passions recklessly and dismisses the fires the sparks of his mind and actions inevitably start. For all the pounding hooves that seem to drive his mind onward and which could (conceivably) turn to racy exhaustion, De Silva’s novel always ticks off chuckles as Malinconico slips and slides in pursuit of redemption. And he ends up working for the Camorra.
De Silva’s depictions of Malinconico’s girl-watching, attempts to get inside his estranged wife’s mind, the way he tries to show her what’s what, and, above all, his attempts to get in front of the situation to control it, make this a worthy addition to Geelhoed’s Works of Art that Explain Men. The list currently includes Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint and the criminally neglected film 44 Inch Chest, written by David Scinto and Louis Mellis and directed by Malcolm Venville (A.O. Scott: “Think of “44 Inch Chest” as a piece of chamber music”). I don’t think 44 Inch Chest even screened in Chicago, and, moreover, I believe the title refers to a man with those dimensions and not a woman, which I hope defuses any charges of misogyny. Check them out next year if you’re ever wondering why we’re doing what we’re doing. Chances are, the answers are in these three artworks, somewhere.