Want some good news? Can’t help you, haven’t had any in years. Good eats? Nah, if your house is like my house, everybody’s watching their calories. Good TV? Sorry, but both Friends and The Sopranos are outta here, and Kingdom Hospital is going too, alas (more on that another time). Good movies? Fuhgeddaboudit, it’s almost summer—Van Helsing time, check your IQ at the door.
Good books? Ah, that much we can do.
Usually once each spring and fall—when the publishers issue their major titles for the year—some ill-tempered dodo whose familiarity with American fiction ends with Sherwood Anderson will proclaim the novel dead, nothing but a time sink for adults stuck in airport lounges between planes or for kids at camp with lightning-bolt scars decaled on their foreheads. Don’t you believe it. The Great American Novel is livelier than ever, and here are three that prove it; just pick the one(s) that fit your hammock.
The Stones of Summer, Dow Mossman (Barnes & Noble, $19.95): If 20th-century America produced a book of Moby Dick stature, it’s probably this one… but don’t let that stop you, or even slow you down. All I mean is that like Melville’s fish story, this is one whale of a tale that has somehow found an audience in spite of mind-boggling hurdles, including going out of print (Bobbs-Merrill quit doing fiction not long after it published The Stones of Summer in 1972) and only a smattering of reviews. Nor was the author exactly up to a PR tour; when his only book was published, Mossman was still recovering from a nervous breakdown he suffered after finishing his 10-year labor of love/hate.
The novel is difficult to get into—the first 30 pages read like an extended set of Bob Dylan liner notes from 1965. But then pure narration takes over, and readers are treated to a magical mystery tour of adolescent life in America’s heartland during the ‘60s. Because Mossman is a poet as well as a crack storyteller, the result is both lyrical and gripping: Think Jim Morrison crossed with J.D. Salinger. Oh, and sometimes it’s fall-on-the-floor funny, too.
Once you’ve read the book—which takes some doing—treat yourself to Mark Moskowitz’s documentary Stone Reader, which played a pivotal role in bringing this forgotten book back into the cultural mainstream. Reader (available on DVD) chronicles Moskowitz’s search for Mossman, who dropped from view 30 years ago. It’s also a love sonnet to books and reading.
So is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves (The Penguin Press, $24.95). If you thought the true gothic novel died with the 19th century, this will change your mind. Shadow is the real deal, a novel full of cheesy splendor and creaking trapdoors, a novel where even the subplots have subplots. There’s a haunted house (ah, but by what?) called the Angel of Mist, and the only horror greater than the thing rotting in its bricked-up crypt is (but of course, señor) the horror of doomed love.
There’s a great deal of love in Shadow, doomed and otherwise. Much of it is lavished upon a romantic dream of Barcelona as it might have been in the mid-20th century (in Zafon’s hands, every scene seems to come from an early Orson Welles movie); even more is reserved for books. Shadow’s narrator is a sweet kid named Daniel Sempere, whose mother has died and who is horrified to realize he can no longer clearly remember her face. When he tells his father this, the elder Sempere takes him to what is surely one of the more delightful locales in modern fiction: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There, he’s told, a visitor may adopt one book which he will care for ever after, making sure it is never lost. Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind, by a forgotten writer (the Dow Mossman of his day, one might suppose) named Julian Carax, only to discover that a terrifying man—if he is a man—has made it his life’s work to burn every Carax novel in existence. The story that follows includes murders, false identities, and two supremely satisfying love affairs. Be warned, you have to be a romantic at heart to appreciate this stuff, but if you are, this is one gorgeous read.
There’s little romantic in The Narrows, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown, $25.95), but one does not enter the dark world of ex-LAPD detective Harry Bosch expecting hearts and flowers. Connelly doesn’t always write about Bosch; I’ve always thought his best book was the gruesome (and excruciatingly suspenseful) The Poet, published in the mid-‘90s. Although the climax of The Poet was satisfying enough, it was open-ended; one could not be completely sure the serial killer had gotten his just deserts.
Turns out he didn’t. The Narrows is a sequel to Poet, and if you save this for hot weather, forget the air conditioner; the chills come built in. The story is told in slightly dislocated fashion—first-person-narrative chapters from the Bosch point of view interwoven with third-person chapters from the point of view of FBI agent Rachel Walling—but the clarity of Connelly’s writing and the steadily building pace of his narrative more than compensate for the slightly uncomfortable feel of that back-and-forth. This is scarifying in a big way—a Thomas Harris kind of scary, which is high praise indeed.
So, with books like these, who needs good news, or even good TV?