- 5 Under 35
What does it mean to be a young writer? Not much, unless you’ve made it onto one of “the lists.” These lists–the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” Granta’s “20 Under 40,” et al.–turn young writers into Young Writers. Now you are the object of fascination, of jealousy, of applause, sometimes even disdain. Now the public has been invited not only to celebrate your talent and productivity but also to consider, explicitly, your youth.
The National Book Award’s “5 Under 35” series is such a list. The writers chosen to receive this year’s honor–Melissa Moustakis, John Corey Whaley, Danielle Evans, Mary Beth Keane, and Shani Boianjiu (whose book has not yet been published and so will not be discussed in this space)–provide us with an opportunity to consider what it means to be a Young Writer, not only in terms of their exceptional early promise but in the nature of their work itself.
This year’s winners have written works that should rightly be celebrated at any age. Yet each is Young in his or her outlook–and by this I don’t mean that the writing isn’t mature, or that the authors write about young people (though all of them do). Rather, it is their positioning within and toward the literary conversation they are entering that makes their writing fundamentally Young. Each of these books charts new terrain within a familiar literary landscape, giving readers important clues to the ideological orientation of fiction in the decade or so to come.
“They say, you came into the world with a bang,” says the narrator of the short-short that opens Melissa Moustakis’s collection of stories, Bear Down, Bear North, describing her birth. The same could be said of this striking collection itself. With an abiding commitment to formal invention, Moustakis paints a vivid picture of the world of Alaskan homesteaders, the interactions of whom are inseparable from their home terrain. An emergency room doctor sticks hooks into a mannequin to keep track of the fishing injuries her patients suffer. A sister on an “intervention” fishing trip fails to address her brother’s drinking problem but discovers just how much he would sacrifice for her. Farther inland, a group of kids rescues a baby eagle from the muck of a stinking outhouse pit.
The specificity of Moustakis’s world is thrilling. Buddies fishing for trout “go for rainbows,” a whale’s belly feels like a bare eyeball, a relative is dubbed “Uncle TooSoon,” a family drinks “homemade cranberry lick.” [End Page 169] This isn’t Sarah Palin’s Alaska. It’s a harsh world, one where a tooth is left chipped to better cut fishing line, where a father gives away his daughter in marriage with the words “ ‘if you can feed her you can have her,’ “ where everyone drinks cod liver oil and you don’t start loving a child until you know it’s going to live. Like the Alaskan wilderness, these stories don’t shy from extremes: they are about the cruelties families can sustain but also about the incredible sacrifices we make for those we love.
Moustakis’s work is both informed by and departs from the conventions established by other writers of the natural world–Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, and Jim Harrison, to name a few. She has learned from these writers the importance of absolute precision in descriptions of landscapes, the exact rendering of the qualities of rivers, fish, plants, meat. Like these writers, she is rigorously unsentimental. But it’s her departure from the realm of the nature writer that makes her fundamentally Young –not so much a break as a hewing of her own path. Unlike the nature recognizable in so much prior nature writing, Moustakis’s natural world is fundamentally unstable. The landscape is not a static place for us to enjoy–it exists within, rather than outside of, our world. Scientists troll the Kenai, collecting samples, attempting to get fish levels up or down, enduring wisecracks from the locals. Whales get confused by bridges...