The Morning News

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 »

» Buy the Books at «
» Meet This Year’s Judges «
» Check the Bloggers’ Office Pool «
» Relive the Action: 2006, 2005 «
» Contact the Tournament Staff «

Powell's Books

The 2007 Tournament of Books is over. To view this year's Tournament, go here.


March 30, 2007

The Road




BRADY UDALL: Did I or did I not, in my capacity as solemnly-ordained Tournament of Books judge, already decide against Absurdistan? And now some group known as “the readers” has voted to bring the book back into contention? This is exactly why I’ve always been suspicious of democracy.

Absurdistan still doesn’t work for me. The Road is the best book I’ve read in five years. My decision, and let it be final: The Road.

• •

MARCUS SAKEY: Gary Shteyngart writes with intelligence and grace. He’s funny—not fall-out-of-your-seat funny, not relate-it-to-your-wife funny, but funny. If I were the sort to have dinner parties, I’d save him a chair.

Cormac McCarthy would beat him to death with one.

McCarthy is arguably the first man of American letters. The Road may not be his very best work (I favor Blood Meridian), but it’s still his A-game, and poor Absurdistan doesn’t stand a chance.

• •

SARAH HEPOLA: Absurdistan is a funny book, but I kept thinking, in terms of a laugh-per-minute ratio, I’d be better off watching The Office. (Or 30 Rock. Have you seen it lately? It’s gotten good.) The Road, on the other hand, is unsettling and strange and powerful, and I don’t love it so much as I appreciate it deeply. This is great writing. So it’s no contest for me: The Road wins.

• •

MARIA SCHNEIDER: Absurdistan reminds us that the streets of the former Soviet republics, far more than America’s, are paved with satire. And Shteyngart’s author photo kills—if I ever write a book, I’ll use his photo instead of mine. But look, I spent several endless, insomniac nights reading The Road, and it’s still giving me a concussion. I’m sorry, it’s unfair, brutal and wrong, but The Road runs over Snack Daddy’s khui with a shopping cart. Oprah agrees.

• •

KATE SCHLEGEL: I’d never read any McCarthy before and don’t like post-apocalyptic tales. This pairing was Shteyngart’s to lose. And 150 pages into Absurdistan, with no plot and precious little non-potty humor to be found, he lost. I admit, it improved in the final hundred pages. It had, finally, an active plot! But the first half of the book was its fatal flaw. My vote goes to The Road.

• •

COLIN MELOY: McCarthy on the Post-Apocolypse? Sign me up! And how! That was one of the few page-turners I’ll read this year. I literally could not put it down. Shteyngart’s Soviet-kitschy romp, on the other hand, took a little more time to digest. I hated it for the first 40 pages or so but then something changed (the writing? My mood? My dinner that evening?) very drastically and within a page I was really enjoying it. This is a tough one, but I’ll have to go with Absurdistan, if only for that fact it was able to sway me so impressively.

• •

DAN CHAON: I’ll go for The Road, at least in part because it includes some excellent recipes.

• •

ANTHONY DOERR: I admit, I had to look up “catamite.” As in, “…and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.” I almost wish I hadn’t. The Road is a mother of a book, enthralling, relentless, devastating. Absurdistan is funny in so many places and I love that Shteyngart is willing to take the kinds of risks he takes. But my vote goes to McCarthy.

• •

JESSA CRISPIN: Sending Absurdistan up against The Road for a duel just seems unfair. Shteyngart is armed with a pillow and McCarthy a gun.

• •

MARK SARVAS: I’m a fan of Gary Shteyngart’s work and I loved Absurdistan—the novel is as funny, wise and big-hearted as its 325-pound protagonist. Any other year, Shteyngart would have something to crow about in this final round. But The Road is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of book writers dream of writing, a career capper, a deeply moving, affecting and—yes—important book. I have to choose The Road. No, wait, Absurdistan. No. The Road. Damn, wait. Absurdistan… No. The Road. That’s my final answer.

• •

MAUD NEWTON: The Road left me depleted and unsteady, feeling as though one of the roving gangs in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world tied me down and sucked the marrow from my bones. Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is a very smart, funny book—one I’ve praised more extensively elsewhere—but McCarthy, after the disappointment of last year’s No Country for Old Men, is at the top of his game. The Road may even surpass Blood Meridian. I have to cast my vote for McCarthy.

• •

SAM LIPSYTE: What a killer showdown—the funniest book of the year and the best parenting manual in recent memory. These are brilliant novels by an old bastard with a masterpiece behind him and a young bastard with one in his future (guaranteed). With the contest this close, my vote begins to wilt with sentimentality. It is by no more than the singed hair on a spit-roasted baby that the winner is The Road.

• •

ELIZABETH GAFFNEY: Absurdistan is funny.

The Road changed me—artistically, politically, emotionally. It’s one of the most harrowing and important books written in years. It has everything a book should have (except of course the one thing Absurdistan is drowning in: humor).

And though I firmly believe that American fiction needs more humor, there’s no contest here. The Road wins by approximately 3,000 miles.

• •

SASHA FRERE-JONES: Absurdistan: Don’t love the Clever Boots School—Safran Foer, Franzen, Shteyngart—where narrative is dressed up in and often strangled by hilarious vernacular, current-events references, and impressively improbable plot convulsions. That said, many of the routines in this book got stuck in my head. I’d like to evict a few of them but, hey, that’s baseball. Or fiction.

The Road: Love the old, silky backbreaking sentences. Love the new, steel-bullet sentences. Had the same McCarthy experience I always have. One hour after finishing the book: “Man, can he write.” One month after reading the book: “Which one was that?”

So, Absurdistan.

• •

ANDREW WOMACK: Absurdistan is hilarious, and Shteyngart gets my vote as a writer I’m going to watch. But it’s The Road that was the more affecting of the two books, and that makes it the winner for me.

• •

ROSECRANS BALDWIN: It’s a stunner! Loved it! Because you’ll never eat rotisserie chicken again: The Road.

• •

JESSICA FRANCIS KANE: Last night I stood a long time by my son’s crib watching him sleep. New parents do this a lot, but I am not a new parent. A little later I went downstairs and watched my daughter sleep. After she and her brother are in bed I’m usually so grateful for the respite that most nights the last thing I want to do, much as I love them, is watch them sleep.

Most nights I have not just finished reading The Road.

I tried to resist this book. I’d seen some of the reviews; I knew the subject matter. I slogged through the opening pages thinking, “Really? Is this going to work?” Then I hit page 16, the man remembering a summer evening in a theater with his wife: “Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned.”

I read furiously after that, couldn’t put the book down. Only I had to, had to make dinner and put my children to bed—just the simple stuff of life we take for granted and The Road shows us we’re fools to do. Fools.

Good God, where did this book come from? It seems to me terrifyingly good, and not good as in “masterpiece” or “instant classic,” but good as in “future sacred text.” The world’s slow dimming. Civilization dying. The ingenious decision to set the story some years after the cataclysm, whatever it was. It’s wrenching to read the time placers: the early years.

“Once in those early years he’d wakened in a barren wood and lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in that bitter dark. …He never heard them again.”

Where I live in Virginia the cherry trees are blooming. Today it will be warm and the air seems soft and pink with promise. I, however, feel sick. Flashes of McCarthy’s burned-out land keep coming to mind, obliterating all of it. It’s awful and wonderful. I haven’t been so affected by a book in a long time.

Mr. Shteyngart, I haven’t said anything about Absurdistan. I intended to because I read and enjoyed it. The problem is that your book exists somewhere up in the stratosphere where the sun is still visible, while after The Road I’m post-apocalypse, down on the ground, stumbling around, wondering what the hell to do. Usually I’m glad if a book I’ve read stays with me. This time, frankly, I’m praying for the cloud to lift a little. It’s hard to breathe.

My decision: The Road

FINAL: The Road (15), Absurdistan (2)

• •


The Road

• From the Booth •

Has anyone built a career the way McCarthy has built his? That respect is earned, man. Bleak and violent novel after novel after novel. Kevin John It seems like only a matter of time until we see a Saturday Night Live skit with a baby being roasted over a fire.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. Absurdistan
judged by Brady Udall

The Echo Maker v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Marcus Sakey

Firmin v. Brookland
judged by Sarah Hepola

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo v. The Road
judged by Maria Schneider

Arthur and George v. One Good Turn
judged by Kate Schlegel

The Lay of the Land v. English, August
judged by Colin Meloy

Alentejo Blue v. Apex Hides the Hurt
judged by Dan Chaon

Against the Day v. Pride of Baghdad
judged by Anthony Doerr

• Round Two •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Jessa Crispin

Firmin v. The Road
judged by Mark Sarvas

One Good Turn v. The Lay of the Land
judged by Maud Newton

Alentejo Blue v. Against the Day
judged by Sam Lipsyte


Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Road
judged by Elizabeth Gaffney

One Good Turn v. Against the Day
judged by Sasha Frere-Jones


The Road v. Against the Day
judged by Andrew Womack

One Good Turn v. Absurdistan
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin


The Road v. Absurdistan
All Judges + Jessica Francis Kane