I read a lot of novels every year, and a lot of times it feels like I'm reading because I have an obligation to novels as a genre to keep reading. You know what I mean. Novels have given me a lot of pleasure in the past, and I feel I ought to be reading because I owe it to the novel. It's like when you have an old friend you don't have much in common with any more, but you keep going over to see him for old time's sake.
It wasn't like that when I read Jeff Vande Zande's novel Into the Desperate Country. From the first page I was reading not because I had to be reading but because what was happening was fresh and engaging. Jeff's created a novel with a hero, Stan Carter, who blends the kind of plausible motivation and implausible action that you see in the really best novels. Stan's lost his wife and daughter in a car accident, and in his mourning he's gone up to the vacation cabin he shared with them in Northern Michigan. Up there, while he's trying to pull himself together, trying to make sense of what happened, he discovers that he hasn't been making payments on either his cabin or his house, and both are to be repossessed. Stan's unfolding relationship with the woman from the bank who comes to assess the value of his property is beautifully and believably done.
What follows is great. I'm not kidding. It was easily the best book I've read in the last year. It reminded me of Updike at his best--the same sharp, beautiful language, the same effortless narrative flow, the same intensity and complexity of character. The same kind of crazy male behavior, but I thought Vande Zande pulled it off in ways that Updike didn't.
I really did enjoy Vande Zande's novel.
How could I tell? I read mostly at night now, and when I do I spend most of my time nodding off over novels, fighting to stay awake. It wasn't like that at all with Into the Desperate Country. In fact, the night I finished it I stayed up way past my bedtime (10pm) to finish the novel.
By the way, it was a super ending.
PS: Jeff's new novel Landscape with Fragmented Figures is just out, and you can read a review of it as his website site. It sounds like it's just as strong as Into the Desperate Country.