A look at the National Book Critics Circle nominees - Fiction

Can anyone overtake Ian McEwan's spectacular novel, "Atonement"? In Britain, it was narrowly beaten for the Booker Prize by Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang." But ever since it appeared in America last March, it's dominated the National Book Critics Circle discussions. In the e-mail banter that flies among the board members all year long, "Atonement" collected so much praise that the contest seemed over before it began. When the 700 members at large were polled for their recommendations, it was the only book to collect enough nominations to require its inclusion on the NBCC shortlist.

At the board meeting in November to fill out that list, one judge noted ruefully, "I feel like we're just picking four books to accompany 'Atonement' to the winner's circle."

But I wouldn't be so sure. Choosing the best book isn't a science. It isn't even an art. It's more like predicting where a feather will land. A couple of novels that had wide support before November stirred up strong opposition during the board meeting, allowing other relatively unknown titles to squeeze onto the final list as compromises. The result is a collection of nominees that's refreshingly diverse - new authors and old, traditional subjects and downright bizarre ones.

Our look at the biographies ran last Thursday. We'll cover the other three categories - nonfiction, poetry, and criticism, over the next three weeks. On Feb. 25, all the nominated authors are invited to read from their work at a public reception at the New School in New York. The winners will be announced the next day. - Ron Charles

MIDDLESEX, by Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $27

Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex" - the story of a hermaphrodite and two generations that came before her - soars over boundaries of gender, chronology, and identity in a voice that makes genetics spellbinding, and tries to make sibling incest sound romantic. As the narrative unfolds against wartorn Smyrna, immigration to America, and the Detroit race riots, turmoil and transformation unfurl, too, in the protagonist's private life. Cal Stephanides - born Calliope, an apparent girl - begins her tale with tantalizing contradictions: "An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into a myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others - and all this happened before I turned sixteen." From there, Eugenides roars through time with a sweep that feels both cinematic and mythic: As the family lore unwinds, time becomes malleable, and Calliope accelerates and reverses history to dizzying, dazzling effect. "And so now, having been born," she says, "I'm going to rewind the film, so that my pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches." Eugenides wrangles with a destiny that mutates and recombines like restless chromosomes, in a novel of extraordinary flexibility, scope, and emotional depth. (529 pp.) By Christina McCarroll

NOWHERE MAN, by Aleksandar Hemon, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95

At first, it seems unusual that Aleksandar Hemon would choose an American as a narrator in his first novel. A native of Bosnia, Hemon spoke little English when he came to the United States in 1992. One in a recent spate of books set in Eastern Europe, "Nowhere Man" loosely documents the life of Jozef Pronek, who, like Hemon, moves from Sarajevo to Chicago just before war tears through his country. The story is told from several points of view. It skips across chronology as each narrator recollects fragments of Pronek's life, from a Sarajevo sandbox where he plays in the shadow of an overprotective grandmother to his days peering inside suburban homes while canvassing for Greenpeace. We hear from an immigrant struggling with English who notices one morning before an interview to teach ESL that "the toilet bowl was agape, a dissolving piece of toilet paper throbbing like a jellyfish" and an American literature student who forms an unexpected attachment to Pronek when they room together during a Ukrainian cultural program in Kiev. But through it all, Hemon's own carefully discordant voice tells a sharply touching story of the immigrant experience and a search for place in the face of dislocation. (242 pp.) By Teresa Méndez

ROSCOE, by William Kennedy, Viking, $24.95

Kennedy's latest novel about Albany (his seventh) opens as World War II closes. The dashing young mayor is returning from battle, and with the Nazis vanquished, his new enemy is a Republican governor determined to clear out the city's network of political cronies, gangsters, prostitutes, and bookies - in other words, the Democratic Party. Three crafty crooks and boyhood friends run the party: Patsy, the leader, Elisha, the moneyman, and Roscoe, the brains. After 25 years of patriotic crime, Roscoe is ready to leave it all to a new generation of con artists. But when Elisha's suicide and a storm of ensuing scandals threaten the party, the crisis appeals to Roscoe's "rage for duty": In one of his best moments, he punches out a critical journalist, sets his own bail, pays it with city funds, and then schedules his own arraignment. But his greatest challenges are internal. When he should be shuffling off to retirement on years of protection money, he finds himself instead tying up potentially deadly loose ends. Fans still reeling from Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed" (1984) will find this novel a different, but no less brilliant book. "Roscoe" barrels along with wild vitality - a winking, confident novel, full of snappy irony but capable of dropping into dark horror or sweet sympathy. (291 pp.) (Full review Jan. 10, 2002) By Ron Charles

ATONEMENT, by Ian McEwan, Doubleday, $26

In this comic, moving, ultimately unsettling novel, Booker Award-winner McEwan captures the brutality of love and war and guilt. The story opens on a sweltering day at the ugly Gothic estate of the Tallis family. McEwan rotates through the perspectives of several residents and guests during a ludicrous and ultimately disastrous weekend, turning subtly through a kind of mock tribute to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. Briony Tallis, 13, fancies herself a writer. At the start of the novel, she is composing romantic verse to convince her brother to marry the right sort of girl. But when she interrupts her cousin's rape in the garden, Briony's story of who was to blame - despite the dark, her cousin's lack of confirmation, and a sprinkling of contradictory details - calcifies into rock-hard certainty that smashes several lives. McEwan's knowledge of the inner workings of his characters is so piercing that you can't help feeling sorry for them; only God should have such intimate knowledge. As the novel moves through three more sections, Briony clears the fog of adolescence and confronts the destructive power of her fiction, even while she pursues its redemptive possibilities. Each of us, McEwan suggests, is composing a life. (351 pp.) (Full review March 14, 2002) By Ron Charles

THE DARTS OF CUPID: STORIES, by Edith Templeton, Pantheon, $23

In the title story of this elegant collection, the narrator, Eve Prescott-Clark, describes her World War II job in a US Army office in Britain with an understated, self-assured flipness. Her breezy account of the banalities of office life and women bored with their lovers or absent husbands makes Eve's eventual developments with "the Major" all the more searing. In Templeton's world of cosmoplitan women, aloof men, and upper-crust society, dark passions lurk dangerously close to the surface. Her prose, like her characters' polished veneers, often hides perverse desires. Indeed, the tension between love and desire, and the inexplicable nature of the latter, is a frequent theme. "Marriage is the tomb of love," declares one story, but Templeton's narrators are often consumed by the need to be desired - and even abused - by cold, authoritative men. It's tempting to view the collection as memoir, since the narrators (often named Edith) share Templeton's singular experiences: a childhood in a Prague castle, a wartime job in a US Army office in Britain, and a marriage to an eminent cardiologist who tended the king of Nepal. Templeton writes in a crisp, detached prose, and each story is a tightly crafted gem. Though written over the past half century, they rarely seem dated. (312 pp.) By Amanda Paulson

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