Observing the way a grieving mother “leapt down and then had to be yanked out of the hole like a weed,” or how, to a man who hadn’t driven in a month, cars “looked like wild animals,” Elizabeth McCracken combines wit with an unflinching gaze into the abyss, crafting unnerving moments that will appeal to fans of Lorrie Moore’s similarly astringent touch. Thunderstruck (Dial, $26) is full of deaths—but life is the force to be reckoned with; “the world goes on. The world will,” its flow like water surging over and around obstacles, gaining texture and resonance from the bumps in its path. People are lost, but never entirely: a dead girl named Missy Goodby animates her schoolmates’ imaginations, transcending familiar images of ghosts; a nondescript woman becomes an enduring mystery when no one can explain her disappearance; a teenager is “completely revised” by a head injury. Parents face the impossible task of shielding their children—and themselves—from the painful lessons they must learn, and, knowing that “the body’s a bucket and liable to slosh,” McCracken takes pains to describe houses and clothing, as if looking for what can contain life’s spillover.
If Graham Greene were writing his boozy, pointed, and insect-infested thrillers in a post-9/11 world, they would be like The Laughing Monsters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). The novel tells the story of a veteran spy with fluid affiliations and fickle loyalties attempting to monetize instability in Central Africa. Operating in a socio-political atmosphere defined by sectarian interests and a War on Terror, Denis Johnson’s spy must navigate both this new paradigm and his feelings for his partner/target/fixer’s fiancée. As in his previous work, notably Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams, Johnson demonstrates lyricism and emotional agility, coupling his elegant prose with a plot soaked in grimy realism. The Laughing Monsters provokes as it entertains; this is a literary journey not to be missed.
The protagonist of Joseph O’Neill’s very funny and smart fourth novel is an anonymous Everyman, though he often considers himself The Dog (Pantheon, $25.95) in the proverbial doghouse. His relationship with a fellow New York lawyer having concluded (despite its “being sanctioned by work”; the pair took their files to bed with them) the man moves to Dubai, which is both “Abracadabrapolis” and the “land of glitches.” There he drives an Autobiography, frequents a growing chain of Unique spas, and waits for a giant hole to sprout the next Astrominium. Employed by a pair of Lebanese brothers, he takes on a boss’s son as an intern and mentors the overweight boy in Sudoku. Yes, this is the stuff of satire—but O’Neill’s humor comes without fanfare. It takes the reader by surprise, just as the protagonist gets caught up in a transatlantic white-knuckle episode—realizing only later that the date is April 1. As accomplished and observant as his Netherland was about the post-9/11 world, this is fiction that’s so absurd it’s utterly realistic.