Who would you award the fiction prize to?

The three books that left the Pulitzer board unresolved for the first time in a generation

For the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went unrewarded. Amid all the muttering and moaning, we were told that the judges couldn’t come to a unanimous decision. Should they have locked them up until they came to a decision? Probably. Unfortunately, we don’t do enough of that kind of thing. Instead, here are the three books that they couldn’t decide between. All are worthy candidates for your bookshelves.

Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

First Lines: ‘Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered.’
You may remember Karen for her only other book – a collection of extraordinary, quirky stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves won wide acclaim in 2006.

More recently, her debut novel made the list of favourites for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Set in the swamps of the Florida Everglades, it introduces the spunky, loveable - Ava Bigtree. The 13 year old alligator wrestler is an unforgettable young heroine. But however vital Ava herself is, the Bigtree dynasty itself in in decline.

Their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly the coolest thing for miles finds itself competing with (and losing to) a fierce new player, a park invitingly dubbed ‘World of Darkness.’

Ava has just lost her indomitable mother and her sister, Ossie, has had the bad taste to fall in love with someone called Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi has just abandoned ship to sign up with the enemy. Complicating everything is the absence of Chief Bigtree himself. With her father missing, it’s left to Ava, who must learn to cope with 98 gators and her own terrible grief.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

First Lines: ‘In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainer took part in the attempt on the life of a Chinese labourer, caught in or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho panhandle.’

If Train Dreams had won the Pulitzer, no one would have been in the least surprised. After all Johnson is the National Book Award-winning author of Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams was named a Notable Book for 2011 by the New York Times and one of the Best Books of 2011 by both The Economist and NPR.

It is the story of Robert Grainer, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century - ‘an ordinary man in extraordinary times,’ in other words.

His story, though deeply personal unfolds against the backdrop of an America in transition and Grainer becomes the eyes through which we see it change. Johnson invokes everything that made the West such a potent draw – from its harsh landscape to the determined, sometimes despairing men who went there looking for new lives.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

First Lines: ‘Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimson-weed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping Charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.’

Even if you didn’t know of him before, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel is enough to make you grieve for him. Compiled and edited by David’s friend and editor Michael Pietsch, the book defies easy summary. Its chapters seem to stand alone, each forming one glittering facet of the novel. Published posthumously, after the author’s suicide, it does what he did best in life - take on and wrestle with the really profound questions with deep insight and a lovely sense of humour.

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