Stephen King’s top book picks for 2006
Have I told you about the Columnist’s Credo I had to sign — in blood, at midnight — in the offices of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY when I started writing these columns? Well, Uncle Stevie had to make lots of promises, and one was that I would never, ever promote my own stuff. So I’m forbidden to say that I have a new book out (Lisey’s Story), or that copies make wonderful presents this holiday season. And I absolutely can’t say that some people might even like to receive two (even three). I can tell you that I just got back from a tour where I flogged this wonderful book endlessly and shamelessly, and where one question cropped up again and again: Do I believe books have any real future as entertainment in a world stuffed with so much good TV, so many loaded DVDs, and such a bumper crop of big-budget movies?
The answer is you bet. Books are still very much a part of the total entertainment picture. They’re portable, commercial-free, recyclable, and use no batteries. Also — unlike your Nintendo Game Boy — a book will rarely be taken away if you’re discovered with one in study hall or even in the back row of math class. You can always claim it was for an assignment. Try getting away with that if discovered playing Grand Theft Auto. And finally, as Anthony Powell pointed out in 1971 (and the observation was not new with him), books do furnish a room.
Here are the best ones I read in 2006…and as always, please keep in mind that doesn’t mean they were published in 2006. This is just my list of the ones that best furnished my interior room this past year.
10. Dispatch, Bentley Little
Little is the horror poet of ordinary things. In this surreal novel, a lonely young man discovers his letters to the editor — and to the famous — bring actual results. Of course he eventually finds out he’s working in Satan’s own office pool, but that’s the fun of the damned thing.
9. The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips
Pathological liar of dubious identity goes bonkers while looking for a hidden tomb in the Egyptian desert after World War I. Tragic, pathetic, blackly funny…and with a strange, growing undercurrent of horror. You have never read a novel like it.
8. Night Mowing, Chard deNiord
This is a slim book of poems, mostly pastoral. There’s little narrative clarity, but deNiord evokes rural scenes with undertones of violence and a breathless, calm clarity that’s close to déjà vu.
7. The People’s Act of Love, James Meek
Samarin is an escaped Russian political prisoner who turns up in the village of Yazyk during the Russian Revolution, only to discover he’s fallen into a deadly struggle between religious fanatics (the men have all castrated themselves), a lost troop of Czech legionnaires, and an officer descending into homicidal mania. The narrative drive is amazing. So is the cold clarity of Meek’s imagination.
6. Crooked River Burning, Mark Winegardner
A great American novel about…Cleveland? Yes, children, this is the real deal — by the man who has revived Mario Puzo’s Godfather characters with such wit and élan.
5. The Ruins, Scott Smith
Americans caught in an escalating nightmare on a Mexican hilltop in the best horror novel of the new century.
4. The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos
Pelecanos, best known for his work on HBO’s The Wire, is perhaps the greatest living American crime writer. He proves it again in this story of how 20 years changes three cops when an old serial killer of teens seems to become active again. The ending is guaranteed to tear your heart out.
3. One Mississippi, Mark Childress
Great novels of adolescence should provide belly laughs and tragedy. This story, in which young Daniel Musgrove moves to Mississippi from Indiana in 1973 (his salesman father is transferred), delivers both. It also provides a priceless picture of the ’70s and why we must never go there again. Suffice it to say that the high school’s first black prom queen is hit by a car and wakes up thinking she’s white, and the local church puts on a play called Christ! The Musical!
2. American Pastoral, Philip Roth
I keep thinking I must have seen all of Roth’s talent, and I keep being wrong. This 1997 novel of an essentially simple, good-hearted man (Swede Levov) and his desperate attempt to understand how the radical movement of the late 1960s has seduced his daughter into madness and murder is probably Roth’s finest book. There are no answers here, only a great story winding its way into the heart of American darkness.
1. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Simple, stripped to the bare bones, this story of a man’s effort to keep his son alive and to find any place of refuge in the wake of a great disaster is the finest achievement of McCarthy’s career. I thought it was almost the perfect narrative — spare in its beauty and constantly driven forward by its own interior urgency. Impossible to put down, in other words.
These are only the best ones. As always, I’m haunted by the thought of the ones that got away. I tell myself there’s always next year for them, but the older I get, the less consolation that seems to be. But it will have to do. And in the meantime, even unread books furnish a room.