C’mon, you can’t read about tweakers and hookers all the time. And I got just the literary sorbet you need to cleanse your palate.
Merit Badges is the winner of the 2009 award for the novel from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and the debut novel from Kevin Fenton (click here for an interviewfentoninterview). It follows four friends in small town Minnesota from junior high into adulthood. Nostalgic, but not maudlin; tender but not sentimental, it is an unflinching yet unrelentingly human examination of four lives and the conscious choices and accidental circumstance that shaped them. And it’s got bowling.
This book broke the heart a lot of people swear I don’t even have, and it did that a couple of times. You will laugh. You will cry. And when you’re done, you’re gonna want to call up some old friends and grab some beers and go roll a few frames.
This is the best book I’ve read this year. Hell, it’s the best book I’ve read in a couple years. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some other folk with actual credentials have had to say.
“An impressive vitality, droll wit, and affecting nostalgia lift Fenton’s first novel about four high school pals growing up together during the 1970s in the fictional town of Minnisapa, Minn. . . . Eminently readable prose . . .”
“A beautifully crafted, perceptive and often funny evocation of some extraordinary, ordinary people.”
—Shelf Awareness, Robert Gray’s Top 10 for 2010 (Bookseller Recommendations)
“Merit Badges lays out for the reader an entire, if circumscribed, world, in all of its limitations and surprising possibilities, rendered with a heartening intelligence and tenderness and wit— ‘The weather was like me, only more so. The weather needed some counseling’ —and in so doing reminds us of Simone Weil’s understanding that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
—Jim Shepard, from the judge’s citation
“Merit Badges is hilarious, painful, lovely, nostalgic, generous and true. Kevin Fenton creates an unforgettable group of characters, in whose lives and thoughts and actions readers will often recognize themselves. This is a very funny, very moving, and wonderful book.”
—Julie Schumacher, author of The Body is Water
“Kevin Fenton’s Minnisapa is a place to rival any in fiction, so skillfully sculpted that you put down the book (reluctantly, when you must) sure you’ve lived there your entire life. Fenton’s vision of the world is tender and true; his characters and their voices are unforgettable. By turns incantatory and matter-of-fact, philosophical and funny, Merit Badges is a thrilling debut.”
—Amy Shearn, author of How Far Is The Ocean from Here
“In Merit Badges, Kevin Fenton welcomes his lucky readers to Minnisapa, Minnesota, on the Mississippi banks where, amidst the confusions of the last quarter of the 20th century, the hills knelt like buffaloes, public niceness was an art form and the winter air was a psychopath. Blending narrative at once hilarious and wrenching with phrases that send both our senses and our intellects dancing, Fenton traces the struggle to acquire wisdom and love in a vivid collection of characters—for whom being a ‘dube’ is the great public anxiety and desperation the great private menace. Here is literary art working, without flaw, at a high level of affirmation and intelligence.”
—Tom McBride, co-author of “Beloit College Mindset List”