Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Visit from the Pulitzer Squad

I had a friend back when I worked in Seattle who set himself a goal of reading every Pulitzer Prize winning novel. This was in the late '90s, so he would have had 75-80 titles to work through at that point. The list is much longer now. Combing through it, I can't imagine how long it would take me to catch up to my buddy, even if he quit halfway through.

I have read a stunningly low total of 4 Pulitzer winners. And at least 3 of those were by sheer coincidence. Here's the list:
  • The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1953)
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole (1981)
  • Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2002)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (2011)
I bought The Late George Apley (1938) at a used book store about 15 years ago, but I don't think I ever made it very far. If I did, it made no impression. I don't remember any of it, so I won't take credit for having read it. So, 4 Pulitzer winners. Pretty weak.

A Confederacy of Dunces is my favorite book, ever. I've read it 3-4 times, and I'm probably due to give it another read. It's hilarious, and the kind of book I read and know I'll never ever come close to matching, quality wise. And I'm fine with that. It's brilliant. We're not all brilliant. Then again, we're not all troubled, either. John Kennedy Toole killed himself long before his book won the Pulitzer.

If I figured every Pulitzer would bring me as much joy as Dunces, I'd read them all. Empire Falls was somewhere a peg or two below it for me. I like Russo, but I enjoyed Nobody's Fool more than Empire Falls, and it didn't win. I also liked The Old Man and the Sea, which I read back in my Hemingway phase. Not a fun story, but well written and there was a fish and an old man, and I really couldn't tell you much more it's been so long.

This is all kind of a long way of saying I finished A Visit from the Goon Squad this week, and ... eh, not sure I get the Pulitzer here. Actually, I think I do, and I think this is the main reason I don't add many recent Pulitzer winners to my to-read list. I wonder if they value experimentation a little too much. Because to me, Goon Squad felt a little gimmicky, if that's the right word. It was all over the place, with different chapters about different people from wildly different points in time. There was one chapter done up like a Power Point presentation (which, from some reviews I read on Amazon, didn't go over big with people who read it on an e-reader). By the time I got to the end I still didn't know who the main character was. Or why I should care about most of them. It's not that the writing was poor. It was really well done, if you take a tree by tree view of it. It's when you back out to see the forest that the whole things falls apart. For me, anyway. I want to latch on to a character when I read a book, root for them, feel for them. That's really hard to do if I don't know who they are.

So, while I won't avoid books just because they won a Pulitzer, I'm not in any hurry to hunt down recent winners and pile them on my nightstand. Even if it might make my reading resume sound a little more impressive.