Robert Birnbaum Picks Some Recent Under-Appreciated Novels

Source: “Under-Appreciated Novels,”, 11 August 2009

Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News’ book blogger, recently decided to engage in some of “the anguished hand-wringing that accompanies intoning the cruelty and myopia of the rest of the barbarous world in failing to recognize the brilliance of that which we (meaning I) deem to be genius.” His list of works deserving more recognition and respect than they’ve earned so far has only one unifying criterion: “[T]hey were all read in this century.”

Birnbaum’s list leans heavily to products of this century, too: Don Winslow’s rich novel of drugs and crime, The Power of the Dog, from 2005; Tim Gautreaux’s bayou novel, The Clearing from 2003; Joseph O’Connor’s multi-faceted story of the post-Civil War West, Redemption Falls, from 2007.

But a few fall to the far side of the bell curve: Philip Kerr’s futuristic A Philosophical Investigation dates from 1993, and The Criminalist, the last work published by Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime novelist, before his suicide, from 1999.

For me, the most intriguing item on the list is Michael Doane’s 1994 novel, Bullet Heart. Chris Goodrich of the L. A. Times had some pretty enthusiastic things to say when the book first came out:

Truth is better captured by fiction, we’re often told, than by purely factual accounts; tied not to external events but to feelings and impressions and ineluctable human character, fiction supposedly brings to life what nonfiction paints by number. Well, here’s one case where the analogy actually works, for in Bullet Heart, Michael Doane Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Bullet Heart'tells the story of a confrontation between whites and Native Americans to which neither journalism nor scholarship could possibly do justice. The novel takes place in South Dakota in the 1970s, when local developers start the short-lived Bones War while building a golf course on an ancient burial ground. The American Indian Movement is at its height, government authorities feel under constant siege, the U.S. appears on the verge of living up to its ideals or of falling flat on its face; Michael Doane uses this real-life civil strife to illuminate the individual troubles, and principles, such rebelliousness brings to the fore…. Bullet Heart, Doane’s fifth novel, may be too thoughtful and too well-written to make headlines, but in its own quiet way it’s a literary milestone.

A couple of Doane’s books are still in print–sort of. In the Path of the Whirlwind is print but “out of stock’. His 1990 novel, Six Miles To Roadside Business is available now–until Amazon sells the one copy they have left. Several of Doane’s works, including Bullet Heart, Six Miles, and The Surprise of Burning garnered 5-star reviews from Amazon readers, so there’s got to be something there worth a look.

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