2012 has been a jittery year, what with the presidential election, extreme weather events and, now, the looming "fiscal cliff." Not surprisingly, many of my favorite books told stories, imagined and real, about people who felt like they didn't have a clue what hit them.
That dazed-and-confused trend kicked off in January with Stewart O'Nan's novella, The Odds, about a middle-aged, unemployed couple about to divorce in order to protect what little assets they have left. First, though, Marion and Art Fowler book a deluxe suite at one of the honeymoon hotels in Niagara Falls and get ready to gamble their remaining cash at the hotel casino. O'Nan's go-for-broke literary style — by turns elegant and ruefully funny — rivets readers to the fateful spin of that roulette wheel. Magical thinking also plays a crucial role in Canada, a dazzling epic of family dissolution by Richard Ford. Set in 1960 Montana and Saskatchewan, the story is narrated by 15-year-old Dell Parsons whose parents hatch the bright idea of robbing a bank to solve their money problems.
The ragged but resilient young narrator of Girlchild, a striking debut novel by Tupelo Hassman, also tells readers a thing or two about what it's like to grow up without safety nets. Rory Dawn Hendrix lives in a Reno, Nev., trailer park where you'd have a better chance of sighting a UFO than a helicopter parent. Nobody does scrappy, sassy, twice-the-speed of sound dialogue better than Junot Diaz. His exuberant short-story collection, This Is How You Lose Her, charts the lives of Dominican immigrants for whom the promise of America comes down to a minimum-wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in a mall and the momentary escape of a grappling in bed.
My pick for best novel of 2012 is something of a dark horse. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter veers up, up and away from the downtrodden environs of the novels I've just described. It's a sweeping stunner of a tale that roams from Italy in the early 1960s to Hollywood and the present-day American heartland. The novel assembles a kaleidoscopic collection of "beautiful ruins," both human and architectural, including discarded starlets, humble hotel workers and, most spectacularly, the self-destructive actor Richard Burton.
For the year's best in nonfiction, let's start by hopping from the Italian coast to the English moors. Juliet Barker's revised and updated edition of her landmark 1994 biography called, simply, The Brontes, upends the tall tales that have obscured a clear view of this brilliant clan. Barker also uncovers new material, such as a charming 1854 letter of Charlotte's in which she confesses to being talked into a white wedding dress, modest though it was. "If I must make a fool of myself [the 38-year-old bride-to-be wrote], it shall be on an economical plan." Louisa May Alcott's siblings didn't share her literary gifts, but her supportive mother, Abigail, was an evocative writer, as well as a campaigner for abolition and women's rights. Marmee & Louisa is the title of Eve LaPlante's marvelous new dual biography of the hard-working mother-daughter pair.
A charged relationship between mother and child also constitutes the subject of Elsewhere, Richard Russo's nuanced memoir about his lifelong relationship with his emotionally dependent mother. Russo writes about his own class emigration from blue-collar kid to college professor and successful writer; but what he also chronicles in Elsewhere is how his difficult mother came along for the ride figuratively and literally, since she climbed into Russo's rusty Ford Galaxy on his cross-country drive to college. I also loved retired classics professor Charles Rowan Beye's saucy and poignant memoir, My Husband and My Wives. Beye looks back on his long life, including his sequential marriages to two women and, now, a man, and contemplates the cosmic question: "What was that all about?"
Sometimes the conventional wisdom is truly wise. Katherine Boo's much lauded work of narrative nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, crowns my best-of-the-year list. Based on three years of "embedded reporting," Boo's account takes readers deep into the richly varied world of a few of the thousands of slum dwellers who live in the shadows of the Mumbai airport and its surrounding luxury hotels. As Boo says in her author's note at the end of the book, the slum dwellers she came to know are "neither mythic nor pathetic," but rather distinguished by their ability to improvise.
Given the space limitations of lists, many critics — myself included — dislike putting these "best-of-the-year" pieces together; but if this rattling run-through attracts more readers to these extraordinary books, I will close out 2012 contented.