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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 »

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


March 15, 2007

The Lay of the Land


English, August

judged by COLIN MELOY

“Two books enter! One book leaves!”

The Lay of the Land, the newest addition to the vaunted literary career of Maine resident Richard Ford, wiped the clinging dust from his book jacket and leered into the large, domed cage that separated himself from his destiny. Across the sand floor, on the opposite side of the cage, he could make out the form of his opponent, English, August by Uppamanyu Chatterjee. He looked tired, old. Christ, thought The Lay of the Land, he was originally published in ‘88! Reprinted this year in a new translation, sure, but could his prose be a match to Ford’s taut, masculine-yet-introspective saga of an aging New Jersey real estate agent looking down the barrel at his own mortality? The Lay of the Land thought not, but, in the end, it was the crowd’s decision. He looked up at the teeming hordes clambering up the walls of the cage, shouting for blood. Damn, he thought, looks like the Book Review offices let out early today.

“Two books enter! One book leaves!” This refrain, originally shouted by a hirsute dwarf in shoulder pads standing in the center of the cage, was now taken up by the crowd. The sound was deafening.

“You’re mine, Ford!” shouted English, August from across the cage, “Your little New Jersey pastoral is going to appear quaint next to my acerbic, comic look at modern Indian life.” He spat in the sand and added, “I’m like the fucking Indian Kafka!” The crowd erupted in boos and cheers.

It was true. Maybe The Lay of the Land’s time had come. Maybe it was time for shorter, funnier, and more globally minded books to take the spotlight. Maybe the Great American Novel was a thing of the past. He adjusted his book jacket and looked down at his middle. Shit, he thought, at least I’ve got sheer girth on him. And he’s only available in paperback.

Before he had a chance to ruminate any more, the gate to the cage snapped open and he was shoved into the middle of the dome. English, August was there, seething through his jacket-blurbs, as a dwarf suited him within his harness. A large woman in a headdress did the same for The Lay of the Land. “Make sure it’s tight,” he said, “Got a lot of dense prose in here.” He shot a glance at English, August to make sure he was listening.

“Begin!” shouted the dwarf. With a loud snap, the two books were shot into the air by the power of the elastic cables that attached their harnesses to the ceiling of the dome. A large wooden mallet, loosely attached to the cage, lay within easy grasp of The Lay of the Land as he was vaulted through the air. He grabbed it and nimbly landed on the floor of the dome. He looked across the floor and frowned; English, August was holding a chainsaw. Things were not looking good.

“You were made of sawdust,” shouted his opponent, “And to sawdust you will return!” English, August charged The Lay of the Land, chainsaw growling. The Lay of the Land leapt aside and felt the teeth of the chainsaw nip at his boards. English, August had not expected him to be so nimble and was thrown off balance by the weight of the chainsaw. With a swift motion, The Lay of the Land had English, August on his back cover.

“Sawdust, huh?” sneered The Lay of the Land. And down came the mallet.

A hush fell over the crowd. Bits of torn paper fluttered through the dusty air. The dwarf walked slowly to center of the dome and nodded at The Lay of the Land. He turned and intoned to the awaiting crowd: “By dint of the fact that The Lay of the Land held a Stronger Grasp on its Reader with its parcelled observations of What It Is To Be American (as well as Celebrating the Dysfunctions of American Family) regardless of the fact that the reader had not read either Two Frank Bascombe Books and Could’ve Cared Less About Real Estate in New Jersey, I declare The Lay of the Land to be the Victor in this Thunderdome Match—over English, August, which, while being surprisingly Funny, seemed lacking in Depth and a certain Vitality in the Writing next to the Observant and Character-driven Prose of Richard Ford.”

The crowd erupted into cheers.

Note: English, August was originally published in English; the 2006 reprint is not a translation of the original text. —Editors

• Today’s WINNER •

The Lay of the Land

• About the Judge •

Colin Meloy is the singer and songwriter of the Decemberists. He was born in a Viennese garret. He thinks his new dutch oven is the cat’s pajamas. He once played a game of blindfolded 5 Finger Fillet with Richard Ford; he splayed his fingers, Ford wielded the knife. However, because he was blindfolded, he can’t be 100 percent sure that it was Richard Ford. It could have as easily been Jonathan Safran Foer. Connections to authors: None.

• From the Booth •

Every time I travel I always think to myself, “Wow, if I hijacked this plane I’d sell a shitload of books.” Kevin John Richard Ford owes me roughly six months of my life back, specifically October 1995 through March 1996.
» 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