Books: The Best and Worst of 1998 -- EW critics rank ''A Man in Full,'' ''Freedomland,'' and ''Reservation Road'' among the best. Plus: The five worst of 1998
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1 A Man in Full Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus &amp Giroux)
Book of the Year

It was worth the wait.

In a world woefully overstocked with timid literary miniatures and pallid, slender tales, this novel is a Lincoln Continental, an Eiffel Tower — nay, an Everest. Its author, perhaps our last robust maximalist, picks up the preoccupations of his 1987 behemoth, The Bonfire of the Vanities — race relations, class, power, status, sex, and, most of all, money — and runs with them all the way into the millennial end zone. A strapping, spectacularly observed, ruthlessly sardonic 742 pages, A Man in Full is the story of two men: a nouveau riche Atlanta real estate mogul named Charlie Croker who’s descended deep into debt, and a hyper-assimilated, disdainful African-American lawyer named Roger White II. Sure, some readers may object to the blunt ferocity of Wolfe’s racially charged satire, but no character is spared his scathing commentary. There aren’t more than a handful of novelists who even try to cover this much of the American canvas, and fewer still whose brushstrokes manage to be so sweeping and yet so precise. Grand and glorious entertainment from one of our indisputable national treasures.

2 Bridget Jones’s Diary Helen Fielding (Viking)
A few critics dismissed it as a trivial daily catalog of one woman’s weight, alcohol intake, cigarette use, and love life, but we suspect they were just jealous. This subversive, verbally astute British import inspired a hundred inferior imitators, perked up a wan postfeminist national dialogue, kicked Ally McBeal’s nonexistent derriere, and, most important, made us laugh uproariously at ourselves and each other. All in all, it was a v.v. good year.

3 Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood Peter Biskind (Simon &amp Schuster)
A scathing history of how the finest directors of a fine film decade — the 1970s — had it and then lost it. With Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and a cast of coke-snorting, backstabbing hundreds, this scrupulously researched account is salty with flavorsome gossip, sour with the aftertaste of misspent careers, intoxicating with one revelation after another, and bitter with decades-old grudges. But the flourish of this dish of a book is that its author cares so much about what went right: the movies.

4 Kaaterskill Falls Allegra Goodman (Dial)
The wise-beyond-her-years Goodman, who refined her craft the old-fashioned way (wonderful, warm short stories), has come of age. This, her first novel, portrays an insular group of Orthodox Jews who summer in the upstate New York town of the title. During the Bicentennial, they hoist small flags of independence: A rabbi befriends a rebellious Syrian neighbor; a mother opens a grocery store. It’s a quiet celebration of the American dream.

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