2012 First Novel Prize Winner
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Set during a single day—in fact, the action unfolds during the course of one Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium—it is a novel about the American war in Iraq, football, cheerleaders, the movie business, capitalism, love, sex, the transmigration of souls, and the general insanity of everyday life in America. The eight surviving members of Bravo Squad have been touring the U.S. on a media-intensive “Victory Tour” initiated by the Bush administration. Four months into their combat tour in Iraq, Bravo defeated an elite force of enemy insurgents. The most critical minutes of the battle were captured on film by a Fox News crew and the video has gone viral, turning the men of Bravo into celebrity heroes. But the victory had a cost, most notably the death of Sergeant Breem, aka “Shroom,” and the loss of both legs by Specialist Lake. At the tail-end of their media blitz, the eight survivors of Bravo Squad are guests of honor at the nationally-broadcast game, where all sorts of wild adventures will unfold—not least of all for Billy Lynn, Bravo’s Silver Star-winning, nineteen-year-old virginal hero.
Absolution by Patrick Flanery
Set in contemporary South Africa, Absolution is a stunningly crafted literary page-turner of big ideas about pitfalls of memory, the elusive line between truth and self-perception, and the ramifications of censorship. Shifting through time and place, Flanery weaves together four different perspectives: three of them are different characters’ competing memories or understandings of the past, and one is the narrative of what might really have happened. How did a young woman disappear in the apartheid movement twenty years earlier? How has it linked a young man and a much older woman in the present? And how are they all—how are we all—silent participants in the problems of the countries we live in? As the separate storylines unfold and ultimately converge, Flanery forces us to reconsider all we’d previously believed to be true.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
(Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.)
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, Arab-Indian hacker Alif ’s computer has just been breached by the “Hand of God,” as the hackers call the state’s electronic security force, and he is scrambling to protect his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other vulnerable groups in autocratic states across the region. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and when it turns out the fiancé is the Hand, and the state security forces come after Alif with guns drawn, he must go underground, trying all the while to fight back against a piece of code he wrote to protect his lover but which the Hand is using to create the most sophisticated state surveillance the world has ever known. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, has fallen into his hands and may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
(Alfred A. Knopf)
A riveting, powerful novel about a pilot living in a world filled with loss—and what he is willing to risk to rediscover, against all odds, connection, love, and grace. Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. His wife is gone, his friends are dead, he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, his only neighbor a gun-toting misanthrope. In his 1956 Cessna, Hig flies the perimeter of the airfield or sneaks off to the mountains to fish and to pretend that things are the way they used to be. But when a random transmission somehow beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life—something like his old life—exists beyond the airport. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return—not enough fuel to get him home—following the trail of the static-broken voice on the radio. But what he encounters and what he must face—in the people he meets, and in himself—is both better and worse than anything he could have hoped for. Narrated by a man who is part warrior and part dreamer, a hunter with a great shot and a heart that refuses to harden, The Dog Stars is both savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scouts. She hasn’t got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she’s checked the Handbook out from the elementary school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal advice (Uniforms, disposing of outgrown; The Right Use of Your Body; Finding Your Way When Lost) for tips to get off the Calle: that is, the Calle de las Flores, the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop. Rory’s been told that she is one of the “third-generation bastards surely on the road to whoredom.” But she’s determined to prove the county and her own family wrong. Brash, sassy, vulnerable, wise, and terrified, she struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good. From diary entries, social workers’ reports, half-recalled memories, arrest records, family lore, Supreme Court opinions, and her grandmother’s letters, Rory crafts a devastating collage that shows us her world even as she searches for the way out of it.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
(Alfred A. Knopf)
Maggie Shipstead’s irresistible social satire, set on an exclusive New England island over a wedding weekend in June, provides a deliciously biting glimpse into the lives of the well-bred and ill-behaved. Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on pristine Waskeke, normally a haven of calm. But for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff. Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life. Hilarious, keenly intelligent, and commandingly well written, Shipstead’s deceptively frothy first novel is a piercing rumination on desire, on love and its obligations, and on the dangers of leading an inauthentic life, heralding the debut of an exciting new literary voice.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
(Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company)
Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart—he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone—but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
(Little, Brown and Company)
"The war tried to kill us in the spring," begins this breathtaking account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. Bound together since basic training when their tough-as-nails Sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes impossible actions.