T he Best Christmas Story That Makes No Mention of Christmas and That Does not Actually Take Place over That Particular Holiday but That Does Feature Lots and Lots of Snow: “The True Deceiver’’ by Tove Jansson (translated, from the Swedish, by Thomas Teal; originally published in 1982; reissued in 2009, New York Review of Books)
“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. Katri screened the lamp so she wouldn’t wake her brother while she made coffee and put the Thermos beside his bed. The room was very cold. The big dog lay by the door and looked at her with his nose between his paws, waiting for her to take him out.”
Thus begins one of the most remarkable novels I have ever read, a novel about two women (the aforementioned Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin, a famous children’s book author who in some ways resembles Jansson, who wrote the well-known Moomin children’s tales) trapped in an endless Scandinavian winter (the novel isn’t absolutely clear about its setting, but Jansson was a member of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority and had a house on an outer island in the Finnish archipelago, a place that sounds as if it might resemble this novel’s setting) and who do battle for much of this tense, funny, relentless novel. When I say “do battle” I mean that each woman has a firm sense of herself and a sense of what she wants from the other, and it’s fascinating to watch each try to change the other while laboring mightily not to be changed. And by “relentless” I mean, among other things, the snow, which falls and falls and will not stop falling. I don’t know of another book that so perfectly recreates the terrible, claustrophobic pleasure of being snowbound.
The Best Subtropical Christmas Story: “Gringos’’ by Charles Portis (1991; reissued in 2000 by Overlook Press)
Most of you will be familiar with Portis from his novel “True Grit,’’ which was his least Charles Portis-like novel. This is not to say that “True Grit’’ isn’t great — ‘tis — but that every other book he wrote is even greater, including “Gringos,’’ his most recent novel. “Gringos’’ begins with this sentence — “Christmas again in Yucatán.” — narrated by one Jimmy Burns, an expatriate American antiquities scrounger and bounty hunter who is as exactly as world-weary, jaded, and lost as that first sentence suggests. Over the course of this wild, hilarious novel, Burns does not necessarily get less cynical (think of Burns as a sunburned Michael Corleone: He wants to stop living an itinerant and quasi-illegal life, but the novel’s alcoholics, burnouts, thieves, archeologists, child-snatchers, hippies, and fascists keep dragging him back in), but his cynicism is the kind that rejects nihilism and allows for at least the possibility of hope, the possibility of a future, even if it’s a future full of people who make your life interesting if not especially happy. A Christmas sentiment if I’ve ever heard one. Which leads me to . . .
The Best Christmas Novel That Is Again not Remotely About Christmas but That Does Feature a Large, Unruly Family Gathering That Prominently Features a Roaring Fire: “The Hundred Brothers’’ by Donald Antrim (1997; paperback edition, 1998, Vintage; 2011 Picador)
This raucous novel begins with its own list: a tally and description of the titular 100 brothers (“Andrew, the civil rights activist; Pierce, the designer of radically unbuildable buildings . . . ”) who have convened in their dead father’s house because they have “resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of [father’s] ashes.” The narrator and his brothers do just that, and the resulting novel is a riotous, ingenious account of how adults regress to their old familiar selves when in the company of family. Of course, your family might not be exactly like the family in “The Hundred Brothers’’ (the father’s house has a library, for instance, and in it the homosexual brothers cruise for each other), but I’d be willing to bet at certain moments over the holiday, in a house crowded with family members, that your thoughts sometimes turn from yuletide to homicide. Hopefully your thoughts remain just thoughts as they do not remain in “The Hundred Brothers.’’ But even if they do, then I hope at least your house has a fireplace. For as Antrim writes at the end of his wise, brutal book, “It is true that there is nothing like a blaze in the hearth to soothe the nerves and restore order to a house.”
Brock Clarke, the author most recently, of “Exley,’’ teaches at Bowdoin College. He can be reached at email@example.com.