Think Twice Before Choosing the Pulitzer Winner

Maybe someday I’ll open the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, realize I was foolishly blind to its treasures, and see how brilliant it is. Maybe. Unfortunately, right now it seems unnecessarily opaque, bitter, off-putting, filled with show-off writing and a grudging, mean-spirited attitude. It’s told by the most unlikeable narrator since the lying teenage Texan protagonist of Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, the worst choice the Booker Prize ever made. In short, it seems the worst Pulitzer choice in years. I’ve tried to read it twice. Sure, it’s angry – but anger is good for provoking literature. A tough, scrappy loser doesn’t have to be unpleasant company.

Take Animal, the feral child narrator of Indra Sinha’s brilliant Animal’s People. He’s got a spinal deformity, he runs on all fours, and lives in the ruins of the chemical plant whose accidental spill killed thousands and crippled Animal. He talks dirt, he talks slang, curses and swears and is always getting erections, and he’s so delightful and funny you want to savor his words out loud.

Not Diaz. His prizewinner has the Kerouac musical language thing going, but the pissed-off voice behind the sounds isn’t generous or welcoming at all. I don’t want to spend time with the narrator. I’d seriously think twice before asking casual everyday readers to try reading it for a book group. Most of them won’t make it past the third horrendously-long footnote, and that’s only page 20.

Admittedly, the other two champion readers at University Book Store in Seattle who take on the toughest literature both got farther than I did – Brad got forty pages in, and Jay made it halfway.

Now, as I said, anger can be good for literature. I just finished reading a really superb novel that’s just as angry as Diaz’s prizewinner, also about living in brutal poverty. It’s The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, available in bookstores on April 22nd, and I couldn’t put it down.

I almost didn’t read it because I read on the outside of the book (always dangerous to do) that it was told by a murderer. I immediately set it aside. I take murder seriously. I don’t respond well to any kind of glamorization. Something got me to give that book a second chance, and the sheer wittiness of it won me over and kept me reading. Balram is a hustler, and he hustles for a living, and he’s hustling you, the reader, as he tells his story. You can’t help but laugh as you see through him, but Balram wants you to like him, and before long you do. By page 36 you know he will slit his master’s throat. The confounding thing is that, the farther you read, the more you discover that the master is the one character who is kind to Balram!

The writing is so natural and laugh-out-loud funny that I zipped through the book far too fast. Though you know the one chilling fact about the ending, you don’t know the when, why, or how. For the last hundred pages I made everyone around me miserable, pacing and gasping, because I couldn’t put it down. Adiga, like Sinha, lets you inside the mind of his hostile narrator, so that you grow to love him, and when he misbehaves you suffer and worry. You will never forget the murder scene – and neither will the poor people trapped with me on that bus ride. It’s the best first novel I’ve read in years. I would compare it to Mohsin Hamid’s little masterpiece, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as an angry political novel presented as a word-perfect satirical literary delight.

Now The White Tiger would make a brilliant book group selection. It’s a banquet of moral complexity, it’s so compelling you can’t help but finish the book, and it will have the members of your group talking long into the night.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "Think Twice Before Choosing the Pulitzer Winner"

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    DIAZ is the worse Pulitzer choice in years? Because YOU say so? You sound like all those white ‘critics’ who said the same about BELOVED when it won the Pulitzer. (Sorry, you won’t be able to google those opinions, you’ll actually have to got to the library and microfiche it) Worst choice ever . . . My God isn’t that rich. Could it be humanly possible that you just didn’t get the book at an emotional and intellectual level, that it just wasn’t for you and that this in itself is not grounds to dismiss a book because YOU didn’t like it. An angry book? I’ve yet to hear many people of color say that. They tend to think it HILARIOUS. Show-off writer? Uhmmm . . . OK, if you say so. The best part about this conversation is Diaz got the PULITZER! And so many people are going to discover by themselves whether they like it or not, whether it speaks to them or not and that’s what’s beautiful. What you’re trying to do is stop people from discovering that for themselves. No chance of that . . .

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