The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Tree of Smokeby DENIS JOHNSON
Ovenmanby JEFF PARKER
JOHN: Well, Kevin, just like my prostate, The Morning News’s Tournament of Books continues to get bigger every year and I couldn’t be prouder to once again join you in the color-commentary booth as we watch these 16 competitors battle it out for literary supremacy and the coveted Rooster. I’m ready for the action, having read to completion four of the 16 titles, and having tried to read a fifth. I’ve also spent the winter trying to come up with new cock jokes in order to make maximum comedic hay out of our unique and special prize.
Here’s one I’ve been working on that may need some tweaking (you’ve got to read it Andrew Dice Clay-style):
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: Because there was a rooster on the other side and she really liked cock! Ohhhhhhh!
As always, we’ve got of the heaviest of hitters (McEwan, Johnson) mixed with the mid-career up-and-comers (Patchett, Díaz, Vida, Clark), and the promising rookies (Tom McCarthy, Joshua Ferris), not to mention an honest-to-goodness, audience-crossing genre novel (Lippman). Last year, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road entered as the prohibitive favorite and exited with the Rooster, which he roasted on a spit next to that dead baby. This year, the competition looks about as wide open as Paris Hilton’s vagina.
So here we have one of the Tournament favorites, an award-winner from a major house versus a lesser-known title from an indie press (Tin House) that’s had some strong successes both commercially and critically.
But in this case, the juggernaut of Denis Johnson rolls to an easy victory according to Judge Seamon.
I think just about every M.F.A. grad in America has a copy of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. I have three. I used to have 11, purchased at $3 apiece at a remainder sale after I’d already read it because I knew at some point I’d be telling someone else that they just had to read the book, and rather than trusting them to go score one on their own, I could give them one of my three-buck specials. The stories in that book are miraculousfunny, despairing, uplifting, surprisingthe conclusion of one of them, Work, caused me to burst into tears at the end because of its sheer beauty and rightness.
Now, I’m no B.R. Myers (speaking of dickheads), who savaged Tree of Smoke in The Atlantic Monthly, but I tried to read Tree of Smoke and couldn’t get past page 60.
I blame me.
KEVIN: B.R. Myers is still around, huh? I stopped reading The Atlantic around the time I started procreating and my adult reading time was drastically reduced, first by the procreating itself, then by Dr. Seuss, which was OK, but more recently in favor of graphic novelizations of Scooby-Doo episodes, usually the same episodes we just watched on TV. A couple of years ago they started making new Scooby-Doos and the one improvement they made is that Daphne wears a lot less clothes. There’s this one where the gang takes a cruise to Australia and she’s wearing this purple bikini. And then there’s one where they go to Hawaii and she’s wearing a flower-print bikini. And there’s one where they’re in Egypt and she’s wearing this, like, backless sarape. I’ve become something like a Mr. Skin of Scooby-Doo. I can tell you what Daphne is or isn’t wearing pretty much by timecode in each episode, which I now enjoy with pipe tobacco and a glass of Cabernet.
What were we talking about? Oh yeah, B.R. Myers. Is he still around? The last time I checked in he still hadn’t recommended a book that had been written in my lifetime. Here’s a bunch of thrillers he doesn’t like. And over here he talks about how Elmore Leonard used to be good, but started losing his touch somewhere around 1969, when B.R. was six.
I like that he dismisses Johnson without reading Jesus’ Son, which is hilarious because Jesus’ Son is not only brilliant, it’s shorter than Scooby-Doo and the Aztec Mummy (no doubt it would be shorter than a B.R. Myers review of it). The sad thing is, I agree with him that there are posers out there who think a novel is good only because they don’t understand it. Myers, though, apparently thinks everyone in the world (except him) is pretending to understand everything they read. Which would really be weird. That would be a good premise for a sci-fi novel, although it would be sad if someone actually wrote it and B.R. Myers couldn’t understand it.
I almost forgot B.R. Myers isn’t a judge in this tournament. Tobias Seamon is. If you get the chance, read Tobias Seamon’s novel The Magician’s Study.
I totally got it.