The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Five

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Day Five

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf vs The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt)

Cards on the table: I’ve never read Kent Haruf (though I’ve always meant to!) and I think that Richard Price is one of the best, most important novelists writing in the United States today. (And I’ve believed that for the past two decades)

The reason for my belief in Price is Clockers, which is a work of genius and George Pelecanos once described to me as “our Grapes of Wrath.” It’s a sentiment I support 100% and if some of you feel that by comparing his novel to an iconic American novel is hyperbolic, well, then you should read it. Some writers like Tom Wolfe will right a pretentious essay about how there’s no enough realism in American fiction (not that Wolfe is a realist, he’s more of a satirist, really), Price just wrote a novel that is based on research, that has the texture and the details that come from first hand knowledge and Price’s work has always had that.

The Whites has a complicated backstory that I won’t get into, but it has a much narrower focus that his novels typically do. Price has spent a lot of time and energy writing screenplays over the years - he also wrote for The Wire, a show that David Simon and many of the writers on it said were inspired by Price’s work. The Whites is a novel about one policeman and it’s about police work. It feels like Price learned about the job from the inside out, that people have opened up to him, that he knows the slang and the details and nuances of police work.

It’s a tense thriller but it’s also an exceptional character drama. It’s his skill at blending those two together, at making the thriller organic. This isn’t about trying to hunt down some serial killer that exists only in fiction but something that rings very true to life in all of its complexity. If like me you read a lot of crime novels and watch a lot of crime dramas, in this book Price schools all of those writers about what the genre is capable of and how to do it well.

Having said that, the narrowness of the book’s focus was something of a letdown for me. The book is perfect for what it is. But where his books like Clockers and Freedomland and others, Price is interested in so much more than just how cops operate and think. Here’s a bad but useful comparison. Homicide: Life on the Street vs The Wire. Homicide was a very good television show but the Wire was a great show and one reason I would argue is that the Wire placed policemen and police work in a context.

Kent Haruf’s book is short and not something I would have probably picked up if it weren’t for the Tournament. It’s the story of two older people who live next door to each other who are living alone and begin a relationship. I’m not a fan of romance stories, I’ll be perfectly honest. I do however enjoy good writing and a deliberate but languidly told tale, which this does.

And while I’m not a fan of romance stories, what I liked about this story is that honestly, it moved me. A lot of books that I read - in this Tournament and just in general - are clearly designed to elicit an emotional response from me. Often, they don’t. But Reading Our Souls at Night, I was truly moved.

So even though I think this is controversial, I’m going to vote for Our Souls at Night. And honestly, on a different day, I would have voted for The Whites. I encourage everyone to read both because I think that each of them is perfect for what they are, but today...

My Winner:  Our Souls at Night.

At the Tournament:  Our Souls at Night.

(I’ll be honest, it’s weird that so far I agree with the judges more often than not...this is not usually the way it goes for, well, anything...)

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