This year's Pulitzer Prizes will be announced this afternoon at 3:00 p.m. It's easy to be cynical about literary prizes, but the list of Fiction winners since 1947 would make a pretty good survey course on post-World War II American literature. It worries me a little that the last winner I read was 2005's Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (yes, I have still not finished The Road, winner of the 2007 prize, and unless I go back on the antidepressants, I probably never will). But I've read most of the winners up until then, so here are five I particularly recommend.
1. James Agee, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, 1958. James Agee died in 1955, leaving this manuscript not quite finished. His editor, David McDowell, knocked it into shape and published it in 1957; a considerably different version, edited by Michael Lofaro, was published in 2007 as A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text. The book is an autobiographical novel about the death of Agee's own father, who was killed in a car accident when Agee was six. I have not read the Lofaro edition, but the version that won the Pulitzer is a simple, powerful account of a Southern family coping with sudden loss. I read this book the summer after my senior year of college, and it felt like a gift.
2. Harper Lee, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, 1961. If you went to middle school or high school in the United States, you've read this book. If you grew up in Europe and want to understand the history of race relations in the South, you need to read this book. To Kill a Mockingbird was the one and only novel written by Harper Lee, whose childhood friend Truman Capote was the model for the character of Dill. Harper Lee is still alive, and while I might wish she'd written something else, it's hard to imagine how she could have followed this. Six-year-old Scout Finch tells the story of her father's defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, oldest daughter of the town's trashiest white man. It is very nearly a perfect book, and I reread it when I need a shot of human decency.
3. Norman Mailer, THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG, 1980. Gary Gilmore was the first person executed after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the national moratorium on the death penalty imposed by its 1972 decision Furman v. Georgia. Gilmore faced a firing squad in Utah on January 17, 1977, after being convicted of the robbery and murder of a gas station employee and a motel manager in July 1976. The Executioner's Song turns Gilmore's history as a small-time thug bent on self-destruction into an epic of the American West, and while we can (and maybe should) argue about whether that was worth doing, the book stands on its own as a masterpiece. An essential companion to this book is SHOT IN THE HEART (1995), a family memoir written by Gary's much-younger brother, Mikal Gilmore, who grew up to become a music critic and journalist.
4. Jane Smiley, A THOUSAND ACRES, 1992. Shakespeare's King Lear is the most challenging of all his tragedies, as it's a story without a hero, whose central character is simply not a good man. A Thousand Acres moves the story to modern-day Iowa and is narrated by the oldest daughter, Ginny (standing in for the play's Goneril). Ginny's father's betrayal of his daughters goes far beyond the question of their inheritance, and A Thousand Acres wrestles with the terrible intersections of love, guilt, rage, and abuse within a family. The film adaptation, starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer, should have been much better than it was.
5. Richard Russo, EMPIRE FALLS, 2002. The Pulitzers seem to switch off between small, perfect novels (Gilead, for example) and these sprawling epics, but what an epic this is. EMPIRE FALLS is the story of two families in central Maine over a period of 40 years, as their personal fortunes rise and fall with the fate of the town. I don't own a copy of this book, and I should, so I can bring my piece of Maine wherever I go.