Friday, May 16, 2008

Choosing a winner

Chicago is a stalwart city. Still new and raw on the grand time scale of human civilization, it nonetheless holds fast to its traditions, when it isn't tearing down glorious old buildings. Called, in its early, hopeful days, Paris of the Prairies, Chicago has been proud of its artists and art institutions, including the The Society for Midland Authors. This heartland writers group was founded in 1915 by the likes of Clarence Darrow, Edna Ferber, Vachel Lindsay, and Harriet Monroe, and early members included Jane Addams, Ring Lardner, and Edgar Lee Masters.

The Society for Midlands authors continues to thrive as it nears its century mark, and each year it marks the vitality of Midwest literature with literary awards and a fancy awards banquet. I was pressed into service as one of this year's three fiction judges, along with the always mischievous and passionately literary Mark Eleveld and Billy Lombardo. We were deluged with novels and short story collections and quite dizzy over this bounty. But we thrashed our way through and came up with three finalists:

Benjamin Percy. Refresh, Refresh. Graywolf.
Tony Romano, When the World Was Young. HarperCollins.
Brock Clarke. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Algonquin.

And the winner, from Kansas City, a town that holds a special place in my heart:

Matthew Eck. The Farther Shore. Milkweed Editions.

Congratulations, Matthew! And thanks for coming to Chicago to celebrate with us.

Here's what Booklist had to say:

September 1, 2007
**Starred Review**
The Farther Shore. By Matthew Eck. Oct. 2007. 192p. Milkweed, hardcover, $22 (1-57131-057-6).

Three American soldiers are stranded in a war-blasted desert city in Africa. The heat, the sand, the impenetrable darkness are all exacting a toll. The enemy is everyone and anyone, even your comrades. The mission is vague, preposterous. The people are starving, desperate, and violent, tyrannized by warlords and clan loyalty. Packs of emaciated dogs roam through smoking ruins. All is obscured by haze, dust, and fear. Josh, a good boy from Wichita, Kansas, struggles to stay rational, vigilant, honorable. Santiago, their lieutenant, tells him, “Stop thinking so much.” Their situation goes from bad to worse to all-out nightmare as they barely escape the city and set out for the sea. Every word in Eck’s first novel is as solid as a stone. Every moment of crisis feels authentic in its terror and tragedy; indeed, Eck served as a soldier in Somalia at age 18. Heir to Hemingway, and damn near as powerful as Cormac McCarthy in The Road (2006), Eck has created a contemporary version of The Red Badge of Courage in this tale of one young man’s trial by fire in the pandemonium of war in an age of high-tech weaponry and low-grade morality.— Donna Seaman

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