The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

The 2009 ToB Contenders List

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judged by Anthony Doerr
In the brief, insalubrious history of this notorious contest I’ve been asked to say whether one first novel was better than another, whether a 136-page graphic novel was as worthwhile as an 1,100-page funhouse epic by Pynchon, and whether Cormac McCarthy had been outpitched by a Kansas City phenom named Whitney Terrell.

But no more perplexing matchup has been assigned me than this one. A teen novel about a prank-happy 15-year-old named Frankie meets a 912-page mashup about a legendary killer.

Comparing these two novels is akin to comparing a 777 with a tangerine. Here’s Shadow Country:
“Mister Watson’s queer laugh come all the way up from his boots, and that laugh taught me once and for all this man’s hard lesson, than our human free-for-all on God’s sweet earth never meant no more’n a hatch of insects in the thin smoke of their millions rising and falling in the river twilight.”
Here’s The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks:
“It just seems so funny to dress up your boobs.”
The word “posse” appears 26 times in Shadow Country. The word “grodie” appears three times in The Disreputable History. (“Grodieness” appears once.)

What the hell? I’m not a seasoned reader of young adult novels, and although I tended to find myself nodding along with parts of Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in December’s Atlantic, I don’t bear any involuntary grudges against the genre. YA, literary, crime, thriller—genres are merely marketing in the end. I want only to be engrossed in something well-made and complicated.

Is The Disreputable History well-made? Pretty much. Is it complicated? Not really. At an uber-privileged boarding school called Alabaster Preparatory Academy, our sophomore heroine gets herself a boat-building-Mini-Cooper-driving boyfriend, then infiltrates a secret society composed of senior boys so she can start puppet-mastering everyone via email.

To be fair, E. Lockhart does have some interesting things to say about the empowerment of young girls. (Or at least the empowerment of young girls operating inside the waspy insularity of savagely exclusive East Coast prep academies.) She has undeniably sharp insights into boarding school psychology, and renders the shrill, all-consuming concerns of a kid grappling with social status in bright, witty sentences. I read the book in a day.

The Disreputable History only fails its reader in one way. I was continually bothered by the fact that the Alabaster employees—the groundskeepers, the golf course workers, the burger cooks—remained invisible for pretty much the entire novel. I blitzed past a reference to “janitors and fix-it people” and had to throw on the brakes and back up a few clauses. Janitors and fix-it-people?

Because nothing in Frankie’s world has any large-scale consequence (for a few pages it appears as though a character may be thrown out of school, but he is not), every character in the book remains almost outrageously secure. Nothing truly fundamental gets shaken up here. In a winter of global violence, child slavery, layoffs, and financial jitters, maybe a forget-the-outside-world-for-a-few-hours book about a smart young woman is the best thing for our young readers.

Or maybe not.

Shadow Country, on the other hand, is large in every way: a large cast of characters, a large reputation, a large amount of pages. It is the result of decades of work and a panoramic ambition. And it engages with pretty much any American issue you might care about: xenophobia, manifest destiny, poverty, storms, politics, native American land rights, the legacy of slavery, and the impact of development on natural habitat.

At the center of Shadow Country’s seething, steaming, muddy tangle of mangroves and crocodiles and “skeeters” is an inscrutable, charming, gun-toting bad-ass named E. J. Watson. Watson is a killer and a rapist and a raiser of (sugar) cane. He’s also almost universally admired by the people who know him.

Shadow Country is a slowly evolving book: rarely do you turn the pages to find out what’s going to happen. Instead you feel the legend of Watson grow and evolve. You hear the voices of the people who knew him. And you watch the sultry Eden of south Florida with its shell mounds and plume birds slowly get fouled by America’s original sinners, its pioneers.

As you may know, Shadow Country was originally three separate books, broken apart and revised and soldered back together, over the course of years, by their author. Clearly Matthiessen doesn’t mind tracing and retracing his steps. Book One features people talking about Watson, Book Two features Watson’s son trying to figure out Watson, and Book Three features Watson talking about himself. As a result, Shadow Country feels a bit over-obsessive. But it remains a burly, violent, muddy, empathetic book. Matthiessen invests all his people with a measure of dignity, the half-bloods and freedmen, the crooks and crackers.

E. Lockhart is a sharp writer and I hope her book finds lots of readers. But for complexity, ambition, and the immersion of the reading experience, this one was no contest.

Today’s WINNER

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

About the Judge

TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr lives in Idaho. He’s the author of three books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, and Four Seasons in Rome. Known connections to this year’s contenders: For a year he had an office across the hall from Toni Morrison’s office, and he once interviewed Marilynne Robinson in front of lots of people.

From the Booth

Is it inappropriate to enjoy the hell out of a YA book? Kevin John Any book that has a running metaphor on the Panopticon isn’t spending all its time in the shallow end.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match and leave a comment of your own «

The Peanut Gallery

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absolutely   no way