As a librarian and college English major, I dread the inevitable question, “What’s the BEST book you’ve ever read?” Over the years, I’ve come to prefer the word “memorable” instead. The handful of titles I periodically re-read is small but wonderfully rich in quality and inspiration for me.
High on that list is Brian Malloy’s remarkable novel The Year of Ice, published in 2002. With every reading, I am transformed and continually in debt to its incredibly gifted author.
Kevin Doyle is an 18-year-old Minneapolis high school senior. During one calendar year, 1978, he will endure much: the aftermath and questionable circumstances surrounding his mother’s death in a car accident; estrangement from his taciturn father; indecision about his future; and perhaps most significant of all, the realization that he is gay.
These compelling story lines intersect and coalesce brilliantly in Kevin’s engaging, self-deprecating, yet often anguished narrative. Malloy brings his “voice” to life so effectively that, as a reader, I am always grateful that he opted for the “first person” literary technique! Thanks to that choice, Kevin is in our ears, our consciousness, and ultimately (at least for me) in our hearts.
It’s difficult to convey fully why this novel has lingered with me for almost a decade, but here’s a start.
Malloy’s sense of “place” is first-rate. As someone who lived many happy years in Minneapolis herself, I enthusiastically confirm that his environmental descriptions are spot-on accurate, making me ever so nostalgic to boot. His dialogue is also very natural and seemingly “overheard”: on these pages, Kevin’s many one-on-one conversations with the people in his troubled life figuratively sing out to me.
But I think what truly distinguishes this novel are its many richly-realized “secondary” characters. From Kevin’s nosy co-worker in the grocery store checkout line, to the well-meaning widow who longs to become his stepmother, to the nerdy schoolmate whose aunt proves negatively pivotal to Kevin’s relationship with his father, to his devil-may-care pseudo-biker best friend challenged with early fatherhood, to the unsuspecting girl Kevin “dates,” albeit under false pretences—these people are as vividly rendered and ultimately memorable as Kevin himself.
I find Malloy’s decision to expend as much thoughtful character development on them as on his all-important narrator both revealing and profound. This writer obviously cares about the entire universe to be found in his pages, not just simply its “stars”. He, and this book, continue to inspire my awe with every reading.
The Year of Ice is an experience not to be missed, for both adults and mature teenagers. Fortunately, Brian Malloy continues to write for both age groups, and I always eagerly await his next effort.
So what IS “the best book I’ve ever read”? This one comes mighty close.