• March 10, 2011

    Opening Round

  • Don Winslow

    1The Finkler Question

    Howard Jacobson

  • Judged by

    Rosecrans Baldwin

The Finkler Question

I had two long plane flights, two books, Richard Hawley on my iPod, and a credit card.

Perhaps my idea of heaven is different from yours.

Flight one: The Finkler Question, Heineken, ham sandwich.

Flight two: Savages, Jack Daniels, peanut butter Clif Bar.

On both flights, I had the same first impression: Finkler and Savages are white-collar novels. As in, these are executed by professionals. You get that from both books’ first chapters. There’s a song-like variety of sentence structure. Zero false notes, and their diction belongs to a system, a world. Both books smelled of expertise.

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My second impression, which I knew from various online and newspaper reading, was that both of these books had been marketed and discussed as genre books, though ones that had exceeded their genres. Finkler Question, a comic novel that won the 2010 Booker Prize. Savages, a thriller that thrilled with style, and one of Janet Maslin’s 10 best books of the year—“boisterously stylish, outrageously brazen… a ferocious, wisecracking, high-wire act.”

It was a contest I was looking forward to.

Savages, by Don Winslow, is the story of two white-hat pot dealers, a former soldier and a do-gooder genius-chemist, who use their profits from selling super-weed to save the world. The trouble is, a Mexican drug cartel wants their turf as part of a northern-expansion scheme. So the boys, and also a girl they both sleep with—her name is “O,” short for orgasm, which she experiences frequently; hard as Winslow tries, however, her character never adds up to much more than that reduction—team up to battle a cartel matriarch and her henchmen for the right to sell weed in San Diego.

And for about 100 pages, Savages is a flamboyant, fun novel. It is “boisterously stylish.” It’s astute in social commentary and erotically terse. The characters are vivid—if not complex, they’re at least complicated. And the writing is extremely quotable, super hip, and written with vigor—and if sometimes the vigor relied a little too much on paragraph breaks and clipped sentences, I forgave it, seeing how much fun I was having. Winslow’s sentences were simply pleasurable to hear and see, and even speak aloud to a plane window.

Especially, I imagine, for readers who enjoy politically-charged surf and weed slang. I made a note on the flyleaf: “If a person enjoys following the in-jokes during a Das Racist song while reading Charles Bowden, this book is for that reader.”

I.e., me.

In fact, I already admired Winslow. I loved Dawn Patrol and The Power of the Dog. I figured he had this contest sewn up. But then… around page 100, Savages snuffs itself. It quickly becomes predictable, thin and dull. I actually started becoming angry with the book—the plot wasn’t surprising anymore, and tension was dropped out for pace. Dictums and didacticism ate up room that might have been used for drama or complex motives.

As the book closed, except for a sociopathic cartel enforcer who gained dimension, Winslow’s main characters lost life—very disappointing. Because during those first hundred pages, I was thinking, “Maybe this will be the next Friends of Eddie Coyle.”

Those first hundred pages were really very good.

On my second flight, I opened The Finkler Question to find three friends living in London: Julian, Libor, and Sam. Julian’s our lead. Julian is a celebrity double. He has identity problems, envy issues, and a bland, handsome face. Mainly, Julian wants to be Jewish. Or, he wants to figure out what it means to be Jewish. Or, he just wants to be like his friend Sam. Sam is Jewish, rich, impulsive, and famous, and he’s both professionally and sexually successful. Sam’s last name is Finkler, so Julian calls all Jewish people Finklers.

It is not a believable quirk. But more on that later.

First, I should add that Julian also wants to be like his friend Libor, who’s also Jewish. Libor is mourning his dead wife. Sam, I should add, is also in mourning. In fact, when the reader meets Julian, more than anything Julian wishes that he, too, were in mourning. Julian, we’re told, finds nearly-dead women hot.

So that’s the summary: sex, mourning, and Jewish identity—a comedy then.

Which is how Finkler’s billed, as a comic novel. Which, in my opinion, is not at all the same thing as a book of humor, or a humorous book. Because Finkler is not funny. I didn’t laugh once—well, maybe once, when Julian’s seducing yet another pale, gasping girl. But I was talking to a friend of mine who’d read Finkler, and I agreed with her when she said she felt as if she’d been sold the wrong novel by all the Booker hoopla.

Instead, Finkler is a captivating, rambling, repetitive conversation about self and death and anti-Semitism. Powerful at times, beautifully witty and investigative, and surprising. The writing’s gorgeous—the only thing showy about the book is how lightly Jacobson demonstrates deep thought. There are wonderful sentences everywhere.

But Finkler has a big problem in its middle: Julian, the main character, is unbelievable. The book’s almost entirely about Julian, his stereotypes and cravings and how he fits his foot in his mouth. But Julian’s desires and grievances are so ridiculous and happen to be so expedient to the narrative, they’re absurd. They’re not coincidental, they’re convenient. There’s just no tension whenever Julian enters a room. Whereas Julian’s friend Sam, who doesn’t receive nearly as much of Jacobson’s notice, is captivating, and I wanted much more of him. Libor less so, but not insignificantly.

I read novels for plot, but I don’t need it—but in its place I do need life. Perhaps Finkler’s point is that Julian is not the center of the book. Maybe the point of Finkler isn’t to dramatize events or entertain its readers, but to flay, to scrutinize, to attack. If so, Finkler still didn’t score high for me on those criteria.

In this contest, I admired both authors, but I didn’t love either book. So it came down to execution—style, insight, and world-making sustained to the final page. On that count, Finkler wins.

TODAY’S WINNER: The Finkler Question

Rosecrans Baldwin is a founding editor of The Morning News. His first novel, You Lost Me There (Riverhead), was named an editors’ choice by the New York Times Book Review and a Best Book of 2010 by NPR. His next book, Paris I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His Twitter handle is @rosecransb. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “TMN published an essay by Teddy Wayne this year, as well as Robert Birnbaum’s interviews with Jennifer Egan and Gary Shteyngart, but I barely interacted with any of them. Same for when Shteyngart judged the ToB in 2008—we exchanged a few emails, but that was it. No other connections to my knowledge.”