Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett

I probably should make it clear, as the author and publisher do on the copyright page, that this book did not win the National Book Award. (Or the Pulitzer, for that matter.) That is, as they say, the joke. If you don't see how that is, or could be, a joke, this is not a book for you at all.

Winner of the National Book Award was Jincy Willett's first novel, published in 2003 after a book of stories, Jenny and the Jaws of Life. Willett has since written a couple of subsequent novels, and seems to be still around, and still just as acerbic and sardonic as this book shows her. (Her website leads with a cover page that more-or-less-dares the reader to go farther and is bylined "Professor Twitmore F. Twatface," for one example.)

This is a literary novel, I suppose. That means it's about real people in a real world, and that the joy in reading it is as much in the words themselves and how the story is told as it is in the events narrated. (Non-literary fiction is entirely about the events. Some people prefer that, which seems bizarre to me. Why deliberately avoid good things? It's like only eating plain hamburgers without sauces, cheese, toppings, or buns.) There is nothing genre in this book. Well, I suppose there is one murder, but it's not a mystery or a surprise.

Often, literary novels are told in quirky, complicated ways. That's part of the appeal, again - it's not just the list of things that happened, but a story told in a particular way by a specific character. In this case, we're hearing it all from Dorcas Mather, the middle-aged librarian of Frome, Rhode Island some time in the mid- to late 1980s.

A hurricane is heading for Frome, so Dorcas is battening down in the library. To spend the time, she has a brand new book, In the Driver's Seat: The Abigail Mather Story, by Hilda DeVilbiss and Abigail Mather. Abigail is Dorcas's twin sister; her opposite in nearly all things. The book is true crime. The accused criminal is Abigail. The circumstances, as the book and an extensive publicity campaign are currently arguing, are extenuating.

Dorcas really does not want to read this book, but it has to be cataloged, and it's in front of her (along with a bottle), so this is how she will spend the day.

Winner is the book Dorcas wrote - or would write; Willett isn't being all 19th century about it - that day, as she reads Driver's Seat and explains what really happened and what it all means. We do get some snippets of Driver's Seat along the way, of course. We get much more Dorcas, which is vastly better: her voice is strong and determined and deeply self-assured.

The actual murder only comes in at the very end, but the reader knows it's coming: it's the point. And we know why: by that point, we're ready to commit that murder ourselves. I haven't mentioned the murderee, or explained why Hilda DeVilbiss as author of the book is important, or even said anything serious about the differences between Dorcas and Abigail. There are other characters in Winner, Hilda and Abigail and the murderee and a few others: we see them all entirely through Dorcas's eyes, and Dorcas is not someone with a whole lot of positive opinions about other people.

More importantly, I've neglected to mention how funny Winner is. That's the real point - it's one part lit-world takedown, one part attack on sexual psychobabble, at least one part insult to true crime, several parts mocking New England pretention, all wrapped up in Dorcas's voice, which mocks itself nearly as much as it mocks everything else. It 's scabrously funny: mean and satirical and wonderfully cruel throughout.

It's oddly timeless, set twentyish years before it was published and now nearly twenty years old itself. That might make it feel more literary to younger readers - it's a world without cellphones and Internet, like all the other crap they had to read in school. For those of us who lived in that world, it just feels like a little longer ago - still a world we remember.

But, really, in the end, this is a really funny book told in a great voice. Again, it's literary, which means it's about people. As long as you are people - and I hope you are, if you're reading this - that should not be an issue.

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