1. Rabbit at Rest
With each volume of his Rabbit tetralogy, Updike has seemed more determined to hold up a mirror up to the age at hand. That determination is responsible for the brio with which he evokes middle-class manners in the last of the books, Rabbit at Rest, in which Harry Angstrom — retired from the Toyota dealership and living in Florida — meets his Maker. Spectacularly readable, Rabbit at Rest is filled with news of contemporary life, on matters ranging from the depth of loyalty to Toyota Inc. among jingoistic American car dealers to the fear of AIDS among hetero-recreational druggies.
2. The Things They Carried
From the author of Going After Cacciato, the story of a U.S. rifle platoon humping the boonies of Quang Ngai Province during the Vietnam War: how they lived and died, whom they killed, the lies they told, the truths they learned, the stories they believed — and some they didn’t know whether to believe it or not. Made up of 22 self-contained but interlocking short stories, essays, anecdotes, narrative fragments, jokes, fables, biographical and autobiographical sketches, and philosophical asides, the novel is held together by two things: the haunting clarity of O’Brien’s prose and the intensity of his focus.
3. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart
Joyce Carol Oates
Though hardly without admirers, Oates never has had quite the acclaim she deserves as possibly the finest (and most accessible) realistic novelist of her generation. She is near the peak of her remarkable powers in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. Set in the black and white communities of a decaying industrial city in upstate New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it is the story behind the death of ”Little Red” Garlock, ”sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River.”
4. Family Pictures
The Eberharts have six children; the third, Randall, is autistic. In an obvious, documentary sense, this novel is about a family unlike any other, grievously injured by a biological accident as arbitrary as a lightning bolt. But there’s another way to read the story. It’s about a family, loving, suffering, enduring, and trying to learn. A more nuanced and mature work than Miller’s 1986 best-seller, The Good Mother.
A performance artist and now a novelist, Hagedorn produced a work of fiction about the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship that surpasses any documentary account of that island country’s wild and complicated colonial legacy. By turns witty and tragic, but always vivid, the narrative is a kaleidoscope of voices, classes, languages, and cultural styles.