The Best Books of 2018: Debut Fiction!

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As with reprints, so too with debut fiction: it's a strong indicator of the general health of a literary year. If the year's crop of debut fiction is strong and inventive and wide-ranging, I find it tends to say good things about the strength and inventiveness of the bookish world across a spectrum extending far beyond the narrow Yaddo-neighborhood of debut fiction itself. These were the best first-outings of the year:

10 We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Knopf) – The feinted underlying conceit of Preti Taneja's extremely confident debut – King Lear set in modern-day New Delhi – seems at first glance so predictable as to kill all hope for the book. But as is the case with a great many of 2018's standout debuts, the hackneyed premise is entirely carried off by the sheer talent of the execution. Taneja brings her characters and their bee-hive setting to life.

9 Whiskey When We're Dry by John Larisson (Viking) – In Larisson's vividly readable debut, a 17-year-old girl is suddenly living alone on her 1885 homestead, in the middle of wild country and even wilder neighboring homesteads eager for any sign of weakness. Our heroine decides to become our hero, cutting her hair and dressing as a boy in order to ride out to find her long-missing brother and bring him back to run the ranch.  The resulting ragged little odyssey makes for a marvel of a debut.

8 Early Work by Andrew Martin (FSG) – The basic setting here is if anything more depressingly derivative than a King Lear pastiche: the lives and loves of a coterie of feckless young characters more or less (spoiler: it's more) identical to the young author and his friends. And again, what saves things here is the skill and memorably quippy execution – a great many of the book's scenes have been polished to within a hair of perfection.

7 A Short Film About Disappointment by Joshua Mattson (Penguin) – Joshua Mattson's antic debut is one exception to the year's informal pattern of excellent work being derived from tired premises; this book is winningly innovative from the start. It's the story of a hack online movie reviewer and the minor crisis that envelopes his life, and the whole thing is told in a series of movie reviews that uncannily manage to double task of moving the narrative forward and being hilarious in their own right.

6 Graffiti Palace by AG Lombardo (FSG) – Like so many of the books on our debut list this time around, Lombardo's novel will strike a familiar chord: it's a pastiche of Homer's Odyssey, mapped onto the Watts riots of 1965. And again, what the book lacks in originality of premise it more than recovers in the sheer manic energy of its execution and the (one might say) Homeric vigor of its imagery.

5 Some Hell by Patrick Nathan (Graywolf Press) – Nathan's incredibly affecting debut centers on a family that's been broken apart and is in danger of fracturing beyond repair. The suicide of teenager Colin's father has sent his mother into a hardening shell of withdrawal and Colin himself to dodgy sources of empathy, and both of them are increasingly absorbed in the enigmatic notebooks Colin's father left behind. The journey Nathan charts in these pages could easily have been greeting-card treacle in less assured hands.

4 Little Disasters by Randall Klein (Viking) – The perfect balancing of barbed humor and sharp tragedy is difficult enough for an experienced novelist to pull off; it's amazing that Randall Klein manages it so well in this debut about two young married couples whose lives are derailed first by connected personal tragedies and then by a tragedy striking all of Manhattan on a hot summer day. Klein has worked and re-worked this story until it folds continuously in upon itself in ways that are almost always surprising and always rewarding.

3 The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harper) – An 18th century London merchant comes into possession of what looks like a slightly mummified baby mermaid, and the whole orderly pattern of his life breaks apart and threatens to become something wonderful in this incredibly atmospheric debut. Gowar's prose is at once dense and playful, and she captures the epoch of a lost London perfectly.

2 Presidio by Ralph Kennedy (Touchstone) – Decidedly grittier and less fanciful than most of the other debuts on our list, this amazingly confident novel tells the story of a pair of car thieves in the Texas panhandle of the 1970s and chases them (and the relatively innocent young woman who's inadvertently drawn into their lives) on a downward spiral that's as gripping as it is grim. This is a largely sunless novel that leaves a very strong impression.

1 Ohio  by Stephen Markley (Simon and Schuster) – It's a rare thing when a universally-praised debut novel actually manages to live up to its hype, but it happens with generous ease in this book by Stephen Markley, the best debut of 2018. Ohio tells the story of four former classmates who converge years later on their hollowed-out and dying Ohio town bringing all their explosive personal stories with them.  And the town itself, poor New Canaan that's seen better days, is in many ways the book's most memorable character.