In yet another outstanding year for Southern writing, so many books did what we love best—opened a window onto an exotic universe that, at first unfamiliar, turned out to have a lot in common with the one we know. Here are some favorites from 2011.
Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones (Algonquin). Set in Atlanta during the 80s, Jones’ third novel opens with a startling confession: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” Witherspoon’s two daughters, sisters Dana and Chaurisse, takes turns narrating this unforgettable story of two families living only miles apart, one legitimate and one “secret,” and the painful differences—and unexpected familiarity—of their separate worlds.
Swamplandia!, Karen Russell (Knopf). The alligator-wrestling Bigtrees—the Chief, his wife, son, and two daughters—have run Swamplandia!, their ramshackle island theme park for years. But when a mainland park drives them out of business, the Bigtree children find themselves abandoned and adrift, trying to save—and survive in—the only world they know. Russell’s artful storytelling and exquisite language ground the often otherworldly elements of this spookhouse masterpiece.
The Illumination, Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon). In his luminous third novel, the Arkansas author asks us to imagine what might happen if all the sickness and injuries in the world gave off light—and whether it would change our perceptions of suffering. Despite the bleak subject matter, hope flourishes in the six linked characters’ shy insistence on reaching out to each other and the delicate, nearly supernatural connections forged between them.
Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks (Ecco). With this troubling story of “The Kid”—one of a veritable leper colony of convicted sex offenders living under a causeway in Miami—and the mysterious sociologist who befriends him, Banks zeroes in on the new pariahs of our society. But he also explores the growing isolation of the digital age and whether the Kid and his fellow exiles are paying the price for America’s refusal to confront its own sins.
Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury). Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for her stark and compassionate close-up of a poor family in coastal Mississippi. Greek myths and a poetic style mesh beautifully with contemporary realism to create this timeless tale of a family that regains its humanity in the face of overwhelming loss.
The Reservoir, John Milliken Thompson (Other Press). A sensational murder trial, a tragic love triangle, and deeply buried childhood secrets dovetail in this seamless post-Civil War novel, inspired by a true case the author unearthed while doing historical research. Thompson hits all the right notes with period details and language, breathing life into a love story almost modern in its psychological intensity
Reign of Madness, Lynn Cullen (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). Married to a handsome, unfaithful husband, Queen Juana of Castille’s crazy jealousy led her family to lock her up and throw away the key. But in this well-researched, poignant novel, Cullen digs deeper into the history of “Juana the Mad,” revealing the forces behind the queen’s seeming insanity: a distant mother, a power-hungry husband, and an even more ruthless father.
The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson (Ecco). Artists Caleb and Camille Fang used their own children as props in their public performance art—until the kids got old enough to scream, “Enough!” But not for long. Wilson brings the dysfunctional adult children back home for a final curtain call that subtly recreates the process of growing up and learning to forge our own identities without killing ourselves or our parents in the process.
The Stranger You Seek, Amanda Kyle Williams (Bantam). Recovering alcoholic and ex-FBI profiler Keye Street puts her faith in Krystal cheeseburgers, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and the notion that “if we understand the victim, we understand the killer.” But when she joins an investigation into a string of serial killings, Street runs up against a vicious predator whose victims defy her attempts at profiling. Williams’ nail-biting debut thriller introduces a new voice that’s smart, funny, believable—and habit-forming. Next, please!
House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home, Mark Richard (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Richard’s fiction has always featured characters permanently bruised by life—outcasts, misfits, freaks and holy fools. In this long overdue and welcome return of his charismatic prose style, Richards takes us to the source of those fever dreams—a childhood spent in state hospitals battling a crippling hip condition—as well as into the decades of recovery as he juggled a desire to write with a call to faith.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now, Ryan Van Meter (Sarabande Books). If there is a more gloriously tender account of growing up gay in suburban Missouri, we have yet to see it. In 13 linked essays, Van Meter traces a loose chronology of a boy who spent the first half of his life learning to hide in the closet, and the second, struggling to come out of it.
No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, Melissa Fay Greene (Sarah Crichton Books). In 1991, the author (“Praying for Sheetrock,” “There Is No Me Without You”) and mother of three felt “a sudden onset of longing and nostalgia” for another baby. After adopting five children from Bulgaria and Ethiopia, Greene revisits the process in this touching and often hilarious memoir, where she sometimes plays the role of the biggest kid.
Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A collection of extended riffs—on topics as diverse as Michael Jackson, a Christian rock festival, prehistoric cave art in Tennessee, and the hallucinatory world a man enters following a severe electrical shock —showcase Sullivan’s brainy intensity and conspicuous ability to immerse himself in his subjects. Reviewers have made comparisons to David Foster Wallace and Tom Wolfe, but trust us: he’s one of a kind.
Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron (Scribner). William Styron, once hailed as the brightest star of his generation, shot into the literary stratosphere with his third book, “Sophie’s Choice,” then never finished another novel. The possible origins of the depression that stalked him to the end of his life and how it affected his family are described by his youngest daughter in this illuminating, harrowing and at times darkly funny account.
The Tarball Chronicles, David Gessner (Milkweed Editions). Award-winning environmental writer Gessner combines a naturalist’s discerning eye with passion and outrage in this inspired account of his trip to the Gulf during the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010. Calling for a more vital, homegrown environmentalism, Gessner raises important questions about the long-term impact of the spill and America’s need to end our reliance on vanishing resources.
(This roundup originally ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)