Cover to Cover

There But For the
Ali Smith

Pantheon

Playful, clever, and moving, Ali Smith’s latest unconventional novel centers around a man who excuses himself from a dinner party in Greenwich, England, and locks himself in the guest room of his hosts’ home. For months. Each of the four sections (one for each word in the title) is narrated by someone who knows the guest only glancingly although nevertheless significantly; that such a combination is possible is one of the themes of this engaging book. Obviously smart, Smith applies her ingenuity exuberantly, playing with the history of Greenwich and of timekeeping, and setting off fireworks of mostly delightful and sometimes profound wordplay. She divides her characters here perhaps a little too neatly into intelligent good guys and crass bad guys, but she dances dazzlingly on a tightrope between the poignant and the amusing.

King of the Badgers
Philip Hensher

Faber and Faber

A genteel estuary town in southwest England serves as a canvas for this plump, satiric, virtuosically written novel that highlights the disjunction between public and private life. Hen­sher, an astute critic and the author of The Northern Clemency, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has been compared to the Victorian novelists in his skill at netting a wide scope of characters to capture the way we live now. Here he turns his unflinchingly observant eye, alert to the ridiculous but generally sympathetic, on a cast that includes a promiscuous and inattentive young mother of four; a fat and desperately lonely gay man (the volume of gay sex in this town strains credulity); and a jaded academic, her public-­servant husband, and their difficult teenage daughter; as well as particularly English fixtures such as the owner of a cheese shop, a retired brigadier and his downy-cheeked wife, and a pair of spinster sisters devoted to their yapping dog. The complicated abduction and eventual rescue of a child define the time line, but plot doesn’t propel this novel. Rather, with a witty naturalness that makes his writing look easy, Hen­sh­er orchestrates telling scenes—for instance, preparations for, anxiety over, and conversations during three parties (a local book-club meeting, a cocktail evening hosted by new­comers, and a gay orgy)—to define, without oversimplifying, the way his characters negotiate contemporary society.

The Odds: A Love Story
Stewart O’Nan

Viking

In this trim little book, O’Nan examines the quotidian sore spots and the com­forting core of a realistic 30-year marriage against the lavish, romantic, and cheesy background of Niagara Falls. Marion and Art Fowl­er, middle-class victims of the 2008 crash, re­visit the site of their honeymoon to gamble what remains of their liquid assets in a last-ditch attempt to skirt bankruptcy. Even more than solvency is at stake, however, since their marriage is foundering along with their finances, and the weekend, at least from Art’s point of view, is also a chance to win big in love and reclaim his wife. Relentlessly honest, O’Nan never averts his eyes from the unpleasant eruptions of the body or soul, nor is he shy of giving affection, admiration, and tolerance their due. The characters’ feelings may be so true that they are often predictable, but O’Nan’s settings—the bus from Ohio, the bridal suite in the hotel, the layers of the casino, the freezing Falls, the Heart concert—are rendered with such vivid intelligence that they have the verve of the exotic. The clever concept and the scant number of pages (the publisher does the book a disservice by marketing it as a novel; this is a fine example of that rare form, the novella) dictate a neatness at the end that, while satisfying in its way, doesn’t play to O’Nan’s immense strengths as a realist—but that’s a quibble.

Lucking Out
James Wolcott

Doubleday

Boy from the sticks (in this case, Frostburg State University) makes good in literary New York. Wolcott’s terrifically titled chronicle of his often down-and-out life in the Manhattan of the grungy 1970s sparkles like dry champagne, because it’s really an encomium to the thrilling possibilities of criticism. Wolcott was among the very last in a long line of striving provincials—George Jean Nathan, Edmund Wilson, Mary Mc­Carthy, and much of the Partisan Review crowd—who came to New York with a burning ambition to be critics. That this goal seems quaint attests to the foreignness of the place and time he recalls—a time when crime was en­dem­ic, rents were cheap, and late-­shifters took their breaks at the Belmore Cafe­teria, “hunched over cups of coffee and heavy carbs while flipping through night owl editions of the New York Post and Daily News.” Lucking Out revolves around Wolcott’s friendships with a knot of dazzling critics: Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, and Arlene Croce. They wrote about disparate subjects—movies, rock, and ballet—but Wolcott, a man of great, though not unerring, judg­ment and taste, knew brilliant criti­cism when he read it. His portraits of them all are acute and generous (Croce’s essay- reviews “radiated a fine chill of infallibility, which could have its own perfect-­martini invigoration in the untucked seventies”), but he’s at his sweetest and most unguarded in his superbly wrought reminiscence of Kael, which forms the cynosure of this engaging book. Kael didn’t make Wolcott a critic, but she did make him what every great critic must be: a civilized person (to adapt her term of praise). This non­fiction bildungsroman testifies to his appropriate and everlasting gratitude.

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