The main character in the nine heart-stopping stories of Fine Just The Way It Is (Scribner, $25), is Wyoming. No one knows the region better than Annie Proulx, and she infuses her fiction with the geography, geology, flora, and fauna of the American West. Her characters are die-hards and schemers, hard-workers and losers. From early Native Americans living by catching buffalo, 19th-century settlers trying to survive on hope and cowboy songs, Depression-era homesteaders running out of hope, and on to contemporary youth with few options but joining the army and serving in Iraq, the region offers at best a hard and short life. If the harsh economic situation or the brutal weather doesn’t get you, your own poor judgment will. Yet Proulx is always sympathetic to her characters; these stories are rich and compelling, with much to offer in place of the romantic illusions of the unlimited frontier they leave trampled in the dust.
Roseanne McNulty, neé Clear, is 100 years old and has lived in mental asylums for some 60 years. Yet on the evidence of the memoirs she records in The Secret Scripture (Viking, $24.95), there is nothing wrong with her mind. Rather, due to several misjudgments earlier in her life—errors that, had they not happened in an Ireland rife with sectarian conflict, anger, and long memories, would have been minor—she earned the enmity of the town’s powerful Catholic priest. As Sebastian Barry, the accomplished Irish playwright and novelist, tells her story, it becomes also the story of her doctor, connected to her in ways she can’t begin to guess, and of a once deeply divided Ireland. Barry’s strong plotting and complex characters combine to make for realistic and compelling psychological suspense. Short-listed for the Booker prize.
When one of Roberto Bolaño’s characters praises “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown,” he’s describing Moby-Dick and Kafka’s Trial, but also 2666 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30). The final completed work by the extraordinary Chilean writer, this book has five parts, each of which could stand alone as a satisfying novel. Together, they resolve specific mysteries, deepen larger ones, and form a brilliant panorama of humanity’s follies, quirks, and outrages, ranging from the genteel pursuits of European literary critics to the depravities of World War II, to the harrowing unsolved murders of women in Juárez, Mexico. Above all, Bolaño is a compulsive storyteller, and his narratives continually spin off in surprising directions, often told by the characters themselves, as Bolaño’s amazingly dexterous, manic, and fully crafted prose lends itself by turns to the voices of cynical cops, tough thugs, the working poor of Mexico’s maquiladoras, sorrowing mothers, an earnest Brooklyn journalist, and unintentionally humorous elderly soldiers. This is a huge, stunning novel, without a wasted word.