The topic this week is books that surprise. When you think about it, any book that’s any good at all has to be a surprise of some sort, whether it means taking you to a place you’ve never been as a reader, making you examine something you’ve never examined before, or saying something in a way that you’ve never heard it said. Here are four books that have surprised me recently, either upon first reading or rereading:
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. I first read this book when it was published, before Franzen had been annointed a Great American Novelist and run afoul of the mighty Oprah. I was surprised by the novel’s odd mix of elements, combining a hyper-realistic portrayal of a Midwestern family and city (St. Louis) with a paranoid political thriller. Franzen clearly intended the book as a not-so-subtle satire of American xenophobia and insularity at a time when we were just beginning to doubt our preeminence on the world stage. However, the thing about the book that lingers in my mind is how well it works as a page-turner while veering off in all sorts of interesting directions. Like just about everyone else, I admire Franzen’s recent books, but I do wonder what he would be up to today if he had continued down this path.
Double Whammy by Carl Hiassen. The surprise of this book is that it actually made me laugh out loud. I know it’s often said, but how often have you laughed out loud at a book? Double Whammy is spit-take funny. I was also surprised that Hiassen could induce me to read a book set in the world of professional bass fishing, which is not exactly my home turf. And, perhaps most surprising of all is the weirdly compelling supporting character Skink -- Bigfoot-like hermit, connoisseur of road kill and former governor of Florida.
The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn. This book surprised me because it’s an even better exemplar of surf-noir than Nunn’s great Tapping the Source. It’s the story of a down-and-out photographer and a former surfing legend on a journey to find Heart Attacks, a mythic surf spot that adjoins Indian lands. Tapping the Source jumped the shark a bit with its ending, but Dogs is beautifully sustained -- creepy, gothic, mordantly funny and moody as the northern California and southern Oregon coastline where it’s set.
Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty. Like the tortured syntax of its title, Adrian McKinty’s first Michael Forsyth novel doesn’t always take the direct route, but the trip is always worth it. McKinty’s first-person narrative follows Forsyth, an illegal immigrant escaping the Troubles in Belfast who joins the crew of an Irish crime boss in Harlem who is waging war against the Dominicans in pre-Giuliani Harlem and the Bronx. This is ultimately a story of revenge, with a nicely turned twist and payoff at the end. And right in the middle, the book takes a surprising detour to Mexico for a criminal scheme that goes very, very wrong. This is violent, pitch-black Irish noir and one of the most stylish, thoroughly enjoyable debuts I’ve read in a long time.