A look at the National Book Awards nominees/ Fiction

Last year's fiction nominees inspired a collective yawn, but this time around the National Book judges have sent up a fantastic list to read and debate. Novelist Walter Mosley will host the $1,000-per-plate awards dinner on Nov. 19 in Times Square. We'll review the nominees in the young adult, nonfiction, and poetry categories over the next three weeks.

- Ron Charles, book editor

Drop City, by T.C. Boyle, Viking, $25.95.

Maybe Boyle's most sophisticated work to date, this rebuke of hippie culture would make Abbie Hoffman put on a tie and write a humble apology on Crane's stationary. The novel follows a young woman who's escaped her stultifying Midwestern suburban parents to join 60 cool "chicks" and "cats" in Drop City, a raucous free-love commune in 1960s California. But three weeks of flatulent bean stew, drug-numbed headaches, and coerced sex dressed up in the lingerie of free love are enough to soil her Edenic dream. A Dickensian genius at the portrayal of hypocrisy, Boyle zeroes in on the human tendencies that complicate this social experiment, even while portraying characters' simple yearnings with real tenderness and sensitivity. (464 pp.) (Full review, Feb. 20) By Ron Charles

The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.

"The Great Fire" smolders in the aftermath of World War II, when the ashes of that calamity threatened to flash back into flame or choke estranged survivors. "In the wake of so much death," Hazzard writes, "the necessity to assemble life became both urgent and oppressive." In the grip of that urgency, Aldred Leith, a 32-year-old war hero, comes to Japan to record the obliteration of an ancient culture. Taking up lodging with an angry Australian couple, Leith finds solace in their remarkable children - particularly Helen, whom he comes to love. In a novel that would collapse under the weight of pretension if a line were mislaid, Hazzard keeps this romance aloft by virtue of her illuminating understanding of human nature. (Full review, Oct. 2.) (288 pp.) By Ron Charles

THE KNOWN WORLD, by Edward P. Jones, Amistad, $24.95.

Unearthing a peculiarity of American slavery, Jones reminds readers we can't underestimate its perverse contortions of the human spirit. Bizarre as it sounds, in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina, a small number of free blacks owned their own plantations - and their own slaves. This fragile situation is the setting for a novel about a group of black and white Virginians who tried - sometimes nobly, often viciously - to maintain their world in the face of inevitable collapse. In a measured voice that never rises to reflect the agonies and absurdities he describes, Jones moves through decades and across state lines, assembling an apparently random collection of brief scenes that gradually fuse into a stunning portrait of moral confusion. (Full review, Aug. 14.) (388 pp.) By Ron Charles

A Ship Made of Paper, by Scott Spencer, Ecco, $24.95.

When Daniel Emerson flees Manhattan for the Hudson Valley town he grew up in, he takes along his girlfriend, Kate, her daughter, Ruby, and a fascination with race. In search of safety - he and Kate have been "Swiss bankers of the heart" - he finds crisis, falling in love with an African-American woman. After a surreal blizzard throws them together amid dead trees, downed power lines, and "domestic Miranda rights," Daniel collides with his lover's husband, his girlfriend's temper, and his own fierce devotion to little Ruby. Early on, Kate wonders if "intuition is just one of the many ways we have of elevating desire, making it something mystical rather than base." That question haunts a novel of fury, longing, and strident, calamitous love. (368 pp.) By Christina McCarroll

Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins, Simon & Schuster, $25.

Wiggins's lyric epic follows Fos and Opal from one world war to another, from grandiose questions about the universe to intimate everyday emotions. Fos is a self-taught scientist who sees the world through miracles of combustion and electricity - and can't imagine the sinister uses to which they could be put. Opal is more practical, the one who counts the meteors as Fos marvels at their origins. The pair begins married life full of hope, running a photography studio with Fos's best friend. But after their friend's actions lead to tragedy, Fos and Opal end up at a government laboratory helping to build the bomb. As Wiggins shifts easily between high-blown metaphor and the twangs of Southern speech, her characters' trajectory parallels America's own loss of innocence. Her prose glows with phosphorus and radium, science becomes poetry, and love is an elemental force. (382 pp.) By Amanda Paulson

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