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The year's most distinguished books, in one critic's opinion.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page BW02

Apparently there are at least two universes in which book folk dwell, and they certainly must be parallel since there's no reason to believe they'll ever meet. One is inhabited by the good ladies and gentlemen who sat as jurors for this year's National Book Award in fiction and, in their wisdom, settled upon five books as finalists: all by women and -- get this -- all by women living in New York City. Yours truly has also selected five works of fiction as, in his opinion, the best of 2004, and guess what? All five are by men, and mostly men of a certain age, which as it happens is an age pretty close to my own.

What's going on here? The National Book Award jurors bestowed their seal of approval on books by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Silber, Lily Tuck and Kate Walbert. Mine goes to books by Stephen Amidon, John Gregory Dunne, Ward Just, Philip Roth and Christopher Tilghman. If disagreements are what make horse races, as my first boss liked to say, then what we have here is the Kentucky Derby multiplied by the Belmont Stakes -- a disagreement so pronounced that there's no hope of resolving it.

These are, of course, matters in which there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong." I believe -- rather strongly, if you must know -- that the five books I've chosen are of exceptional quality, and I stand by my choices confidently, but I also know that when the roll is called up yonder, the five ladies from New York may be sent to cushy quarters Upstairs while my five gents get steerage Downstairs. My own view is that the literary judgment of the National Book Award panelists was clouded by their desire to Make a Statement (as, for that matter, was the judgment of their compatriots on the nonfiction panel), but it's just my opinion and is worth no more than the paper it's printed on, if that.

Whatever. If I were permitted to keep on my shelves only one work of fiction among the many I reviewed during 2004, the choice would be easy: An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just. This novel, its author's 14th, describes a 19-year-old boy's passage to adulthood with a gravity and maturity that the conventional coming-of-age novel never achieves. It has emotional and thematic depth, rich, resonant prose and is introspective without ever being narcissistic. The story takes place in Chicago in the 1950s but is viewed from the vantage point of four decades later, which gives it distance, clarity and objectivity.

The protagonist of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is a younger boy whose story is also told after the passage of many years. Roth's work has often given me pause in the years since the publication of his brilliant first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), which won a National Book Award when that still really meant something. Now as then his subject is Jewish life in the United States, but his depiction of it has taken a turn away from satire toward sympathy. The Plot Against America postulates that Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940, setting off a wave of anti-Semitism that has dire consequences for a family in Newark and its younger son, named Philip. I find the fictionalization of Lindbergh troubling, but the account of the family's struggles is powerfully moving and wholly believable.

Comedy has played a large role in much of Roth's fiction, but not this time. In John Gregory Dunne's Nothing Lost, by contrast, comedy rules. It is a serious book that has serious things to say about contemporary American life and culture, but it says them for the most part in the language of comedy. Dunne, who died not long before the novel was published, had as sharp an eye as anyone among his contemporaries, and as sharp a pen as well. This tale of a murder and the media circus that follows it nails every target in sight. Dunne was one of the very few contemporary American writers whose every word I wanted to read; he went out in style.

Somewhat surprisingly, there's comedy too in Christopher Tilghman's Roads of the Heart. Like his previous books it is about fathers and sons, but this time it treats the subject in a way that is as much antic as ruminative. An old man -- a once powerful Maryland politico who left office in disgrace -- is nearing the end, and asks his son to drive him south so he can apologize to the former wife whom he mistreated. Soon enough all sorts of people climb aboard, and the trip turns into a Magical Mystery Tour in which family skeletons are exhumed and old grievances resolved.

Satire rather than comedy is the business of Stephen Amidon's Human Capital, a novel about suburban life during the boom-and-bust 1990s. A husband and father overreaches himself out of a foolish desire to keep pace with the fast-buck people who have invaded his once sleepy New England town, with consequences he cannot imagine. The plot is lively enough to keep the reader fully engaged, and the principal characters are interesting in their very different ways, but what really matters is Amidon's keen eye and tart observations about the passing scene. Is it too much to hope that he will take up where Dunne left off?

A footnote to the fiction list: three books of 2004 that I read and admired but did not review. Alphabetically by author they are: Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley, a deliciously in-your-face, wholly politically incorrect and extremely funny novel about the clash of Mideast and West in a fictitious Arabian land; The Curse of the Appropriate Man, by -- tada! a woman! -- Lynn Freed, a collection of stories in which the author writes subtly, knowingly and very honestly about women's sexual lives; and The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro, by Paul Theroux, also a story collection, this one about men's sexual lives, and also subtle, knowing and honest.

As to nonfiction, I reviewed a great many books but not many good ones. Six are worth recommending, in the order in which I reviewed them. Kevin Phillips's unfriendly history of the Bush family, American Dynasty, suffers from clotted prose, but it is a brave inquiry into how power is acquired, kept and used -- or abused -- in America. Among all the anti-Bush books published during this overheated election year, this is the only one that is serious rather than merely partisan or self-serving. It is a critique from inside, by a quondam Republican political strategist, which makes its arguments all the more telling, and stinging.

Dalton Conley's The Pecking Order is about the ways in which people's lives are shaped by the places they were accorded within their families. Though birth order is commonly assumed to be the dominant influence, Conley contends that it's more complicated than that. Children are favored or neglected or spurned for a variety of reasons that often have little or nothing to do with birth order, he says, and he makes a persuasive case. Conley, a sociologist, proves to be an astute psychologist as well.

A couple of the country's most important and influential leaders were treated to first-rate biographies this year. Josiah Bunting's Ulysses S. Grant is brief (under 200 pages) but boils down existing Grant scholarship to its essentials and interprets his life and public service in provocative, convincing ways; Bunting necessarily takes the measure of Grant's military genius, but he also gives his presidency higher marks than it is usually accorded, and with good reason. In His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis writes at somewhat greater length than Bunting does, but his purpose is essentially the same: to see his famous subject through an unclouded lens. Ellis believes that resentment of richer Virginia plantation owners and condescending British leaders was a powerful motive behind Washington's passionate ambition and devotion to the new republic.

American themes of a very different order are the subjects of the last two books on my nonfiction list. Michael W. Kauffman's American Brutus is a study of John Wilkes Booth that should, but doubtless won't, settle all the arguments that have raged for nearly a century and a half about Lincoln's assassin and his cadre of pathetic lunatics and misfits. Kauffman has done incredibly detailed research and is able to trace Booth's movements almost minute by minute. We know how the story ends, but he still manages to keep the reader in suspense. As for Michael MacCambridge's America's Game, it is a history of professional football, also extensively researched and filled with detail, most of it interesting. Its emphasis is on pro football's rise from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, with the result that the game's early years are regrettably scanted, but it tells the story of the rivalry between the National and American Football Leagues with brio and -- even though we know how this one ends -- with considerable drama.

Happy holidays to all of you, esteemed and valued readers. I'll be back in this spot on the second Sunday in January. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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