Newsweek's Best Novels Of 2000

It didn't start out looking like a banner year for serious fiction. The big news of the year was that the fastest selling novel of all time was a kids' book about a school for wizards. (Although maybe the oddest thing about "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' was that it was a terrific book even if you weren't a kid.) But that was the kind of year it was: Things that really shouldn't have happened kept happening. At 84, for example, Saul Bellow published "Ravelstein," his most vigorous book in years. But the strangest thing about 2000 was that while it never seemed like a great year for fiction, a lot of excellent novels did get published. Some of the best were written by newcomers like Zadie Smith and Ben Rice, writers you'd never heard of before, but it was easy to see right off that this is not the last you'll hear from them. Here are the novels and short story collections, in no particular order, that NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones, David Gates, Jeff Giles and Susannah Meadows liked best.

Zadie Smith "White Teeth" (Knopf)
This sprawling story of the friendship between two old war buddies, the dim Archie Jones and the fervent Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal, is an epic, omnivorous comedy about London, about clashing cultures and generations and about people with too much history in their blood, or none at all. "White Teeth" has far too many characters, and its plot is tortured, but Smith has an astonishing intellect, she can write dialogue for every race and sex and she's funny as hell, with a dazzling first novel to prove it.

Philip Roth "The Human Stain" (Houghton Mifflin)
Roth's been on a critical roll since "Patrimony" in 1991, and this latest, the cap to a trilogy begun with "American Pastoral," just extends his streak. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's literary stunt double, appears once again, this time to tell the story of Coleman Silk, an aging professor forced into retirement after being branded a racist. Often preachy, and layered with metafictional trickery, this nonetheless marvelous novel is a splendid double meditation on what can be known and the power of imagination.

Charles Baxter "The Feast of Love" (Pantheon)
Linked romances--sexy, moving--told by the lovers to an insomniac novelist named Charles Baxter. The breakthrough book for this writer's writer?

Michael Chabon "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (Random House)
Put it this way: After you read this book, you get to use the word "swashbuckling" to describe it. Two Jewish boys in America during World War II make hit comic books starring a superhero who bounds through this masterful thrill of a novel dressed up in that pretty, clausey Chabon prose. With this novel, his third, the author has pulled off another great feat.

J.K. Rowling "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (Scholastic)
The fourth and by far the longest of the Harry Potter books, this installment brought Harry face to face with his nemesis Lord Voldemort. Under pressure to produce a book a year and keep the quality up, Rowling has proved a remarkable author. These are probably the first really good books-good as in good mysteries, with interesting characters and solidly mortised plots-that children today are discovering on their own. Rowling is helping them set a mighty high standard for what to expect.

Francine Prose "Blue Angel" (HarperCollins)
A New England college professor falls for a coed and quickly loses his job, his wife and most of his sanity-and somehow Prose keeps this funny to the last page, darkly funny, but funny all the same. Not since the days of Nathaniel West has a book with so many despicable people been so likeable.

George Saunders "Pastoralia" (Riverhead)
In his second volume of ingenious satiric fantasies, a pair of hired cave dwellers in a theme park bicker, and the talking corpse of an old woman who's led a life of self-abnegation advises a struggling male stripper to show his "unit." Sound like Gen X silliness? Check it out. Saunders is a drop-dead wonderful writer, with a flawless ear, boundless inventiveness and a secret hoard of unwimpy compassion.

Maureen Gibbon "Swimming Sweet Arrow" (Little, Brown)
A young, working-class woman comes of age in this moving first novel--she could be the blunt-spoken daughter of a Raymond Carver character. The graphic sex is neither porn nor arty erotica: it's anthropology with a heart.

Paul Beatty "Tuff" (Knopf)
Picture Biggie Smalls-overweight, hypersmart, charismatic-as an East Harlem art-film buff instead of a Brooklyn rapper and you've got a rough idea of Winston (Tuffy) Foshay, the rough-diamond hero of this wickedly satirical yet touching novel. Beatty knows both pop and elite culture inside out, and while "Tuff" sometimes gets so busy being funny and knowing that it forgets to move along, you can't help but love a novel whose hero aspires to film "Cap'n Crunch--The Movie."

Joseph Heller "Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man" (SimonSchuster)
Heller's crafty final novel, completed before he died of a heart attack in 1999, is his slightest, but it may be his scariest: it amounts to a literary suicide note. An aged, blocked novelist named Eugene Pota (portrait of the artist) desultorily considers and disgustedly abandons bad ideas for a new book. When Pota's novel turns out to be the one we're reading, we're neither surprised nor delighted. Pota's not either.

Heller must have known this book would chill every writer, and many readers, to the heart, while offering not a bit of comfort. For having that much nerve, you've got to admire him at last.

Denis Johnson "The Name of the World" (HarperCollins)
It's not easy to summarize this brief book about a middle-aged man in spiritual and emotional freefall after he loses his wife and daughter in a car crash. Just say that Johnson's best work often takes a sudden skyward leap, powered by his intuition. You find yourself pulling G's--your intellect wants to stay earthbound--then looking down in wonderment.

Jeffrey Lent "In the Fall" (Atlantic Monthly Press)
After the Civil War, a Union soldier comes home to New England with an African-American bride, and that's enough to kick off three generations of trouble. You can hear echoes of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner in Lent's prose, but the residing geniuses of this dark first novel are Robert Frost and Winslow Homer, flint-eyed Yankees who never saw a paradise that didn't have a snake.

Ben Rice "Pobby and Dingan" (Knopf)
Ninety-three and a half beguiling pages about a boy who leads his town in a dramatic search for his "fruit loop" sister's imaginary friends amid Australia's brazen opal-mining landscape. He even learns to believe in them, long after we already have. An unusually high wonder-to-page ratio.

James Welch "The Heartsong of Charging Elk" (Doubleday)
An Oglala Sioux traveling with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in France falls sick in Marseille and gets left behind. He spends the rest of his life in France, while we spend the rest of this book completely absorbed in this touching and often horrifying story of culture clash. The novel is based on a true incident, but it's the storytelling skills of James Welch ("Fools Crow") that bring Charging Elk so indelibly to life.

Philip Pullman "The Golden Compass" (Knopf)
Multiple universes, a knife that can cut through anything, talking polar bears, and two children who are out to save the world-put them all together and you have the extraordinary climax to Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Published as novels for young adults, these books are quickly finding the broad (read: adult) audience they deserve. There's not a writer alive with an imagination more fecund than Pullman's--or a storyteller more skilled. These books remind you why you love to read.

Tony Earley "Jim the Boy" (Little, Brown)
This sweet but unsyrupy novel about a boy growing up in rural North Carolina during the Depression opens on Jim's 10th birthday and ends a year later. In that time, Jim sees the ocean for the first time, plays ball in front of a stopped passenger train that might or might not have Ty Cobb on board, visits his dying grandfather and watches rural electrification come to his little town. But the apparent casualness of the plot masks extraordinary craft. Concentrating on the small events that make up a life, Earley has wired together almost every one of these seemingly inconsequential moments. By the end of the book, the life of this boy and his family blaze at you like a whole town of lights.

Joyce Carol Oates "Blonde" (HarperCollins)
Oates's fictionalized life of Marilyn Monroe can be inadvertantly funny, heavy-handed and sometimes baffling, but Norma Jeane is a great character: already broken and ruined in childhood yet gifted with a heart, a will and a secret rage that sustain her for longer than we'd have thought.

Stephen Harrigan "The Gates of the Alamo" (Knopf)
Crockett, Travis and Santa Ana are nicely drawn in cameos, but the real stars of this novel are a plant biologist and a frontier woman and her son who get swept up in history not of their making. And though he's someone who plainly hates war and violence-the leaders on both sides of this conflict are portrayed as fools or scoundrels-Harrigan's description of that seige of the little San Antonio mission is now the one to beat.

Mark Z. Danielewski "House of Leaves" (Pantheon)
A photographer and his family move into a house that turns out to have an inside wall slightly longer than the corresponding outside wall. Instead of doing the sensible thing and running like crazy, they stick around, while the house goes from being strange to downright malevolent. By the end of this audacious first novel, even the type on the page is literally going haywire as the chaos and horror pile on. And we haven't even mentioned the L.A. street kid who's reading this "found" manuscript, or his letter-writing mother in a mental institution. "House of Leaves" requires a taste for complication, but the payback is enormous.

Myla Goldberg "Bee Season" (Doubleday)
Goldberg's marvelous debut novel concerns an 11-year-old wallflower named Eliza Naumann who stuns her school--and her parents, frankly--by sweeping spelling bee after spelling bee. The novelist writes about bee subculture in great, reportorial detail, and about Eliza's relationship with her father, who's a self-styled Jewish scholar, in a crushingly poignant way.

Heidi Julavits "The Mineral Palace" (Putnam)
Bena Jonssen and her husband, a philandering doctor named Ted, arrive in Pueblo, Colo., in the midst of a drought as well as the Depression. What results is another thoroughly absorbing first novel: harrowing, poetic and tragic enough to satisfy both Faulkner and Oprah.

Darin Strauss "Chang and Eng" (Dutton)
A bold, minutely imagined meditation on the true meaning of togetherness. Chang and Eng were the original Siamese twins, born attached at the chest in the 19th century. The brothers were born in poverty in the Mekong Delta, escaped death by wowing the king and traveled the world as a freakshow before marrying a pair of sisters from North Carolina. Strauss, a first-time novelist who's already at work adapting his book for a Disney movie, writes with flair and imagination whether his characters are in the epic court of the king or in their own exceedingly cramped bed.

Newsweek's Best Novels Of 2000 | News