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2016 National Book Awards: Fiction

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The National Book Award fiction longlist
The 2016 National Book Award fiction longlist.
Courtesy of the National Book Awards

All week, the National Book Awards will be releasing its longlists of honorees: each day, a new genre. The finalists will be announced Oct. 13, and the winners will be named on Nov. 16.

Today the organization unveiled the contenders for the fiction prize. Last year, Adam Johnson won for his collection of short stories, "Fortune Smiles."  

"The Throwback Special" by Chris Bachelder

Chris Bachelder's comic novel centers on 22 men who reunite every fall to recreate one of the most cringe-worthy moments in NFL history: "The Throwback Special," a brutal 1985 play in which a player's leg was broken on the field. As the friends reach middle age, they still return to the field to act it out, dragging more and more baggage from their lives behind them: divorce, failure, fears and grievances that may sack the whole tradition. 

 

"What Belongs to You" by Garth Greenwell

"What Belongs to You" broaches a subject often kept in the shadows: the world of hustling — gay men paying for sex. Greenwell tells the story of an American teacher working in modern-day Bulgaria, and Mitko, the young hustler he becomes enamored with. The novel explores the ideas of desire and shame, and what happens when the two collide.

"Imagine Me Gone" by Adam Haslett

"Imagine Me Gone" drags the realities of families living with mental illness into the light with wit and insight. When John is hospitalized in the 1960s for depression, his fiance makes the choice to marry him anyway. Adam Haslett traces the ripples of that decision through the couple's children, as they grow up in the shadow of their father's illness and help their mother carry for him.

"News of the World" by Paulette Jiles

"News of the World" takes its name from Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd's 1870 traveling show, in which the war veteran brings the "news of the world" to rural outposts in northern Texas. In one town, he's given an unusual assignment: $50 in exchange for escorting a 10-year-old orphan south to San Antonio. The girl's family was killed by Kiowa raiders years before, and she was raised by the tribe until the U.S. Army seized her back. Kidd and the girl embark on the 400-mile journey, and must learn to trust each other along the dangerous route.

"The Association of Small Bombs" by Karan Mahajan

News of bombs exploding in markets and stadiums and busy streets seems to pop up every day, but Karan Mahajan's novel picks up where the headlines leave off. Set in Delhi, the novel begins with the death of two young brothers in a crowded marketplace — victims of a small bomb left by a radical group. The boys' close friend, Mansoor, survives, but Mahajan traces the difficult path set out for him in the bomb's aftermath. He also follows the brothers' grieving parents and the bomb-maker himself.

"The Portable Veble" by Elizabeth McKenzie

Elizabeth McKenzie delivers the clever California satire that current events have been begging for. "The Portable Veblen" follows Veblen and her fiance Paul, a Palo Alto couple whose engagement is on the brink of collapse. Their relationship is complicated by their dysfunctional families (old hippies, hypochondriac mothers, etc.) and Paul's sudden success when the Department of Defense takes note of his invention. As Veblen tries to power through with wedding plans, she finds herself more uncertain than ever before.

"Sweet Lamb of Heaven" by Lydia Millet

An eerie and unsettling novel, "Sweet Lamb of Heaven" follows Anna, a young mother on the run from her husband Ned, a successful businessman in Alaska who harbors ambitions for political office. Ned's lies and manipulation mount as he moves closer to power, and Anna makes the decision to flee with her young daughter. As she hides in a remote hotel in Maine in the dead of winter, Anna's escape is complicated by a voice she keeps hearing but can't explain.

"Miss Jane" by Brad Watson

Brad Watson channels his own family history in bringing to life his great-aunt, Miss Jane Chisolm. Jane is born with a genital birth defect that makes marriage an impossibility for her, living in rural Mississippi at the start of the 20th century. Jane makes a full life for herself despite her circumstances, and Watson's novel meditates on impossible loves and finding beauty in an unforgiving world.

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

Oprah loved it. Obama loved it. The National Book Award judges loved it. Arguably the biggest book of the fall, "The Underground Railroad" applies a dose of magical realism to one of the darkest moments of American history. Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual train, cutting through the earth, running from southern plantations to points north. He follows one particular runaway, Cora, as she travels the route in search of freedom.

"Another Brooklyn" by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for her book for young readers, "Brown Girl Dreaming," and now she's back on the longlist with a book for adults. "Another Brooklyn" follows August, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970s with a group of friends who seemed destined to take on the world together. But as the book hopscotches between August's adult life and her childhood memories, the story of how the city and friendships shaped her reveals larger truths about growing up.