>> It’s getting to that time in the calendar when lists are compiled for the best novels of the year. With some qualifications (most notably Alison Moore’s Booker nominated The Lighthouse), I’d actually recommend heading straight for America’s National Book Awards shortlist.
It’s a really strong competition this year, featuring Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich and two authors I’ve interviewed who have the Iraq War as their backdrop: Ben Fountain and Kevin Powers.
First, Ben Fountain. Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk chronicles what happens when Bravo Squad return home heroes after the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal. The Bush administration sends them on a nationwide Victory Tour to bolster public support for the war, and they are due to appear during half time of a Dallas Cowboys game alongside Destiny’s Child (and in an amusing example of fiction mirroring reality, ex Destiny’s Child Beyonce is booked to do the Super Bowl halftime show this season).
The problem is, these soldiers don’t feel like heroes. And it’s the reaction of the public which troubles them the most. As Fountain told me: “their words don’t really mean anything because they don’t know what they’re talking about. That’s the crux of it. Even though they’ve seen the violence, horror and destruction of war on the television, it’s not real to them.”
And exploring the definition of heroism in war is key to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. The story of Private John Bartle’s experiences during and after the Gulf War, Powers (who was a gunner in the US Army himself) says the narrative is about someone who tried to be good but failed. When Bartle returns home, he says: “Really, they should all hate me for what I’ve done, but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy.” It’s a breathtaking insight into the longer-term effects of battle, and beautifully written, more in common with the trench literature of the First World War than Black Hawk Down.
And, if you’re asking, my book of the year.