Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Great American Novel: A Review of A Swollen Red Sun

The novel is a literary form that has a unique potential that other literature does not. In my opinion, no country (other than Russia) has produced so many writers that can realize the potential of the novel than the United States. From John D. MacDonald to Jim Thompson, Herman Melville to Daniel Woodrell -- my favorite novelists are American. Forms like the hardboiled crime novel or the noir allow American fiction to deal with the world not how we would like it to be but rather how it is. One might argue that the pursuit of the Great American Novel (which is to say, a great novel that is firmly American, that could only exist because of its American-ness) I firmly believe that (with the exception of Les Edgerton maybe) there is not another writer alive that does this better than Matthew McBride has done with his new novel, A Swollen Red Sun. With his newest offering, McBride has succeeded in writing The Great American Novel.

The plot of A Swollen Red Sun, to put it loosely, deals with a good man that has done the wrong thing for the right reason and a bad man who has done the right thing for the wrong reason. As you might expect, these two opposites will inexorably collide. What you get on the way, among other things, is something about love, hate, life, death, addiction (of many types), greed, forgiveness, selfishness and selflessness. You get the sum totality of the human experience.

As you're reading, it feels like the book will not be contained in its 254 pages. You expect to return to it later and find that it has grown on its own to accommodate the big ideas that are held within the covers. You are introduced to so many characters who are not caricatures but some of the most finely crafted individuals in all of literature and it seems impossible that McBride could do them justice. However, Matthew McBride is a master of his craft, a born storyteller, and there could not be a better captain at the helm. The novel is epic without being superfluous, tragic without being exploitative, and understanding of its characters without being too soft.

A Swollen Red Sun brings to mind some of Daniel Woodrell's classic material -- it is set in Missouri, deals with less than savory characters, and is written with such beautiful and powerful prose that you will stop to reread sentences and phrases because you want to relish the feeling they give you. However, I believe it is better than anything Woodrell himself has produced in some time. Certainly McBride handles his characters in a balanced, nuanced, compassionate way that Woodrell does not. It sounds cliche and perhaps it is but this is the sort of novel that has characters that you will feel very strongly for and, when the book is closed and the light is turned off, you will wonder what they are doing now as you would a lost friend, someone you can no longer access directly.

It won't surprise you to learn that this will earn a place on the list of best novels I have read this year. It will probably be on a similar list for this decade's worth of books down the line. It is a book that I will read again. It is a book I will recommend to my family and friends and feel envious of them being able to experience and enjoy it for the first time.

I really, really like this one, guys. No matter who you are, you need to go and pick this up. Matthew McBride is one of the best, most skilled writers of our time. You best get acquainted with him now and start praying that he keeps putting words on paper.

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