First Novel Prize

The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Short List 2009

 

Winner:  

Woodsburner by John Pipkin (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese)


John Pipkin

The early American tree-hugger and pioneering thinker Henry David Thoreau did a bad, bad thing back on April 30, 1844. A year before he settled into the "simple life" at Walden Pond, he struck a match to start a cooking fire in the dry woods around Concord, Massachusetts and accidentally ignited a forest fire that consumed 300 acres. The events of that chaotic day appear to have altered the course of Thoreau's life and American history. More recently, this historical footnote sparked the creation of Woodsburner. Woodsburner offers a beautifully nuanced portrait of a young and less recognizable Thoreau, whose philosophy begins to materialize as the flames lay waste.


American Rust by Philipp Meyer (Spiegel & Grau)

 
Buell, Pennsylvania lies in ruins, a dying--if not already dead--steel town, where even the lush surrounding country seethes with concealed industrial toxins. When Isaac English and Billy Poe--a pair of high-school friends straight out of Steinbeck--embark on a starry-eyed cross-country escape to California, a violent encounter with a trio of transients leaves one dead, prying the lid off a rusted can of failed hope and small-town secrets.

The Cradle by Patrick Somerville (Little, Brown and Co.)


An elusive heirloom cradle symbolizes childhood's pains and possibilities in Somerville's spare, elegant first novel. Marissa, pregnant with her first child, becomes obsessed with tracking down the antique cradle her mother took when she abandoned the family a decade earlier. Marissa's husband, Matt, is sure he's been dispatched on a fool's errand, but his journey soon connects him to Marissa's family and his own history of abandonment, neglect and abuse amid a string of foster homes and orphanages.
 

Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press)


Harding's outstanding debut unfurls the history and final thoughts of a dying grandfather surrounded by his family in his New England home. George Washington Crosby repairs clocks for a living and on his deathbed revisits his turbulent childhood as the oldest son of an epileptic smalltime traveling salesman. The descriptions of the father's epilepsy and the cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure are stunning. The real star is Harding's language, which dazzles whether he's describing the workings of clocks, sensory images of nature, or the many engaging side characters who populate the book.

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li (Random House)


During the Cultural Revolution countless unspeakable acts occurred in the otherwise unremarkable industrial town of Muddy River. Lovers betrayed lovers, children denounced their parents, and neighbors became sworn enemies. A few years later, the townspeople have convened at the public stadium to witness the execution of Gu Shan. A Red Guard leader in her youth, she has received the death penalty for her counterrevolutionary writings and unrepentant attitude. In Yiyun Li's startling debut novel, her unblinking and unpredictable fictional narrative demonstrates how corruption and cruelty, fear, and moral ambiguity at the level of the individual reflect the dehumanization of an entire society.



The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Short List 2008

 

 Winner:

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (The Dial Press)  


Hannah TintiTwelve year-old Ren is missing his left hand. How it was lost is a mystery that Ren has been trying to solve for his entire life, as well as who his parents are, and why he was abandoned as an infant at Saint Anthony’s Orphanage for boys.  But then a young man named Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren’s long-lost brother, and his convincing tale of how Ren lost his hand and his parents persuades the monks at the orphanage to release the boy and to give Ren some hope. But is Benjamin really who he says he is? Journeying through a New England of whaling towns and meadowed farmlands, Ren is introduced to a vibrant world of hardscrabble adventure filled with outrageous scam artists, grave robbers, and petty thieves. As Ren begins to find clues to his hidden parentage he comes to suspect that Benjamin not only holds the key to his future, but to his past as well. 

 

The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block (Random House)

 

 Abel Haggard is an elderly hunchback who haunts the remnants of his family’s farm in the encroaching shadow of the Dallas suburbs, adrift in recollections of those he loved and lost long ago. As a young man, he believed himself to be “the one person too many”; now he is all that remains. Hundreds of miles to the south, in Austin, Seth Waller is a teenage “Master of Nothingness”–a prime specimen of that gangly, pimple-rashed, too-smart breed of adolescent that vanishes in a puff of sarcasm at the slightest threat of human contact. When his mother is diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, Seth sets out on a quest to find her lost relatives and to conduct an “empirical investigation” that will uncover the truth of her genetic history. Though neither knows of the other’s existence, Abel and Seth are linked by a dual legacy: the disease that destroys the memories of those they love, and the story of Isidora–an edenic fantasy world free from the sorrows of remembrance, a land without memory where nothing is ever possessed, so nothing can be lost.

 

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)


When Dr. Leo Liebenstein’s wife disappears, she leaves behind a single, confounding clue: a woman who looks, talks, and behaves exactly like her—or almost exactly like her—and even audaciously claims to be her. While everyone else is fooled by this imposter, Leo knows better than to trust his senses in matters of the heart. Certain that the original Rema is alive and in hiding, Leo embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim his lost love.

  

Dervishes by Beth Helms (Picador)

 

When she is twelve years old, Canada moves with her mother and father to Ankara, Turkey, where her father has been stationed by the government. It is 1975--the Cold War is in full swing and tensions in the Middle East are escalating. But in Ankara's diplomatic community, the days are lazy and indulgent--one long cocktail party…Canada and her mother, Grace, find themselves in the company of gossipy embassy wives and wealthy Turkish women, immersed in a routine of card games and afternoons at the baths. By the time summer comes, and the city's electricity shuts down from dawn to dusk, mother and daughter can no longer tolerate the insular society--or each other. Alternating between their perspectives, Dervishes follows Canada and Grace as they set out into the larger city….Before long, both are in over their heads, and their transgressions threaten to strand them between the safe island of westerners and a strange city that guards its secrets fiercely.


  Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau (Free Press)


In a book warehouse in western Massachusetts one sweltering summer, a man at the beginning of his adult life—and the end of his career rope—becomes involved with a woman, a language, and a great lie that will define his future. Most auspiciously of all, he runs across Itsik Malpesh, the last Yiddish poet in America, and a set of accounting ledgers in which Malpesh has written his memoirs, twenty-two volumes brimming with so much adventure, drama, deception, passion, and wit that the young man is compelled to translate them, telling Malpesh’s story as his own life unfolds, and bringing together two paths that coincide in shocking and unexpected ways.

 

Personal Days by Ed Park (Random House)


In an unnamed New York-based company, the employees are getting restless as everything around them unravels. There’s Pru, the former grad student turned spreadsheet drone; Laars, the hysteric whose work anxiety stalks him in his tooth-grinding dreams; and Jack II, who distributes unwanted backrubs–aka “jackrubs”–to his co-workers.  On a Sunday, one of them is called at home. And the firings begin. Rich with Orwellian doublespeak, filled with sabotage and romance, this astonishing literary debut is at once a comic delight and a narrative tour de force.

  

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm--and into Edgar's mother's affections. Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires--spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

 


 

The John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize

Short List 2007

 

Winner:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Riverhead/Penguin) 


Junot DiazThings have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukœ-the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.

 

 

Bearing the Body by Ehud Havazelet (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

 

At the start of Bearing the Body, Nathan Mirsky learns that his older brother has died in San Francisco, apparently murdered after years of aimlessness. On the spur of the moment, Nathan leaves his job as a medical resident and heads west from Boston to learn what he can about Daniel's death. His father, Sol--a quiet, embittered Holocaust survivor--insists on coming along. Piecing together Daniel's last days, Nathan and Sol are forced to confront secrets that have long isolated them from each other and to being a long process of forgiveness.

 

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

 

When his girlfriend takes a job in Thailand, Mischa Berlinski goes along for the ride, planning to enjoy himself and work as little as possible. But one evening a fellow expatriate tips him off to a story: a charismatic American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, has been found dead--a suicide--in the Thai prison where she was serving a life sentence for murder. Curious at first, Mischa is soon immersed in the details of her story. This brilliant, haunting novel expands into a mystery set among the Thai hill tribes, whose way of life became a battleground for the missionaries and the scientists living among them.

 

Finn by Jon Clinch (Random House)

 

Jon Clinch takes us on a journey into the history and heart of one of American literature’s most brutal and mysterious figures: Huckleberry Finn’s father. Finn sets a tragic figure loose in a landscape at once familiar and mythic. It begins and ends with a lifeless body–flayed and stripped of all identifying marks–drifting down the Mississippi. The circumstances of the murder, and the secret of the victim’s identity, shape Finn’s story as they will shape his life and his death.

Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon (HarperCollins)

 

For ten years, Norma has been the on-air voice of consolation and hope for the Indians in the mountains and the poor from the barrios—a people broken by war's violence. As the host of Lost City Radio, she reads the names of those who have disappeared—those whom the furiously expanding city has swallowed. Through her efforts lovers are reunited and the lost are found. But in the aftermath of the decadelong bloody civil conflict, her own life is about to forever change—thanks to the arrival of a young boy from the jungle who provides a cryptic clue to the fate of Norma's vanished husband.

 

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander (Knopf)

 

From its unforgettable opening scene in the darkness of a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Aires, Nathan Englander's debut novel The Ministry of Special Cases casts a powerful spell. In the heart of Argentina's Dirty War, Kaddish Poznan struggles with a son who won't accept him; strives for a wife who forever saves him; and spends his nights protecting the good name of a community that denies his existence. When the nightmare of the disappeared children brings the Poznan family to its knees, they are thrust into the unyielding corridors of the Ministry of Special Cases, a terrifying, byzantine refuge of last resort. Through the devastation of a single family, Englander brilliantly captures the grief of a nation.

 

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman (Pantheon)

 

Doctor Impossible—evil genius, would-be world conqueror—languishes in prison. Shuffling through the cafeteria line with ordinary criminals, he wonders if the smartest man in the world has done the smartest thing he could with his life. After all, he's lost every battle he's ever fought. But this prison won't hold him forever. Fatale—half woman, half high-tech warrior—used to be an unemployed cyborg. Now, she's a rookie member of the world's most famous super-team, the Champions. But being a superhero is not all flying cars and planets in peril—she learns that in the locker rooms and dive bars of superherodom, the men and women (even mutants) behind the masks are as human as anyone. 

 


 

The John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize

Short List 2006

 

Winner:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (Viking)


Marisha PesslA darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and suspense tale told through the voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. Blue is clever, deadpan, and possesses a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge. In her final year of high school at an elite North Carolina school, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their teacher, Hannah Schneider. Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), the novel combines suspense, self-parody, and storytelling.

 

 

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner (Little, Brown, and Company)


When Mavala Shikongo deserted them, the teachers at the boys' school in Goas weren't surprised. How could they be? She was too beautiful, too powerful, and too mysterious for their tiny, remote, and arid world. They knew only one essential fact about their departed colleague: she was a combat veteran of Namibia's brutal war for independence. When Mavala returns to Goas with a baby son, all are awed by her boldness. The teachers try hard, once again, not to fall in love with her. They fail, immediately and miserably, especially the American volunteer, Larry Kaplanski.


 

The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger (Ecco/HarperCollins)

 

Yuan Zhao, a celebrated Chinese performance artist and political dissident, has accepted a one-year artist's residency in Los Angeles. He is to be a Visiting Scholar at the St. Anselm's School for Girls, teaching advanced art, and hosted by one of the school's most devoted families: the wealthy if dysfunctional Traverses. The Traverses are too preoccupied with their own problems to pay their foreign guest too much attention, and the dissident is delighted to be left alone—his past links with radical movements give him good reason to avoid careful scrutiny. The trouble starts when he and his American hosts begin to view one another with clearer eyes.

 

   

Cellophane by Marie Arana (Dial)

 

At the heart of Cellophane is patriarch Don Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua, a lovable, eccentric engineer who always dreamed of founding a paper factory in the most improbable of locales—an uncharted pocket of the Peruvian rain forest. Yet his dream is fulfilled, and over the years he builds a comfortable life for himself and his quirky family, always mindful of ominous predictions he received as a boy. When he discovers the formula for cellophane, this diaphanous product ushers in a new era of plagues for Don Victor: a hilarious plague of truth, an erotically charged plague of desire, and a sinister plague of revolution. Love lives are toppled, new romances are ignited, and Don Victor is finally forced to weigh the price of pursuing a dream to its final conclusion.

 

Send Me by Patrick Ryan (Dial)

 

In the Florida of NASA launches, ranch houses, and sudden hurricanes, Teresa Kerrigan, ungrounded by two divorces, tries to hold her life together. But her ex-husbands linger in the background while her four children spin away to their own separate futures, each carrying the baggage of a complex family history. Matt serves as caretaker to the ailing father who abandoned him as a child, while his wild teenage sister, Karen, hides herself in marriage to a born-again salesman. Joe, a perpetual outsider, struggles with a private sibling rivalry that nearly derails him. And then there’s the youngest, Frankie, an endearing, eccentric sci-fi freak who’s been searching since childhood for intelligent life in the universe–and finds it.

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Woodsburner

American Rust

The Cradle

Tinkers

The Vagrants

The Good Thief

The Story of Forgetting

Atmospheric Disturbances

Dervishes

Songs for the Butchers Daughter

Personal Days

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Bearing the Body

Fieldwork

Finn

Lost City Radio

The Ministry of Special Cases

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

The Dissident

Cellophane

Send Me