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2003: A road map to the best - fiction

Perhaps you turned to fiction this year to restore your faith as you witnessed plain language being hijacked daily by military euphemism (''body bags" are now called ''transfer tubes"). If so, the most celebrated writers were the least consoling.

DBC Pierre won the Man Booker Prize with ''Vernon God Little," a tedious literary tantrum narrated by a Texas teenager and filled with naughty words. Pierre's publicists also revealed more of the author's odious personal history than we cared to know, something that will never be said about J. M. Coetzee, recipient of this year's Nobel Prize for literature and one of the literary jungle's most elusive creatures. ''Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons" originated as camouflage when Coetzee delivered a 1997 lecture by reading an account of his heroine, Elizabeth Costello, delivering a lecture. The resulting novel is as strange as you might imagine, a series of reflections by Elizabeth on subjects such as ''Realism," and ''The Problem of Evil" that leaves you fazed rather than dazzled.

This year's Booker Prize chairman, Peter Carey, quickly proclaimed his intention to popularize the prize, hence perhaps Mr. Pierre. But Carey's latest novel -- his shortest -- was also his least entertaining. A fictitious postscript to a famous Australian literary hoax perpetrated in 1943, ''My Life as a Fake" described the unlikely entanglement between an English literary couple and an Australian faker only to become entangled itself in phony musings on authenticity.

Shirley Hazzard, by contrast, won the National Book Award with a genuine triumph.''The Great Fire," a meticulous, melancholy love story set mainly in World War II Japan, displayed the kind of sensibility and intelligence that recalls a more mature literary tradition. Jhumpa Lahiri exhibited similar poise in ''The Namesake," which follows an American-born Bengali boy, named Gogol for the Russian writer, as he navigates both this society and the confusing business of being an immigrant's son.

The finest short stories arrived not only in major editions such as ''The Early Stories: 1953-1975" by John Updike but also in Nadine Gordimer's ''Loot"; ''A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies," by John Murray, and ''Indelible Acts," by A. L. Kennedy, also proved that the art of compression thrives even in a literary climate of bluster and bloat.

Here are some of the other books, listed alphabetically by author, that made the reading year worthwhile.

It is hard to think of another novel besides ''Drop City" that so mercilessly skewers the hippie era and the shabby politics of commune life. Its villains are outstandingly vile. But this is also T. C. Boyle at his most disciplined and thoughtful as he conveys the innocence as well as the idiocy of a breakaway era.

''I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark," by Brian Hall, is a triumph of imagination. With lyricism, humor, and psychological acuity, he envisions not only the 1804 expedition and its aftermath but the explorers' response to a wilderness that defies description, let alone calculation. Hall transforms a monolithic legend into a quixotic, heartbreaking story, one you enter rather than salute.

Edward P. Jones's depiction of the interconnected lives of an African-American slave owner and his human property, ''The Known World," shuttles from the 1840s to the eve of Civil War, weaving a subtle, intelligent epic of antebellum Virginia. Jones layers the texture of each individual life to create a common history, and his flawless language re-creates the customs and cadence of a hopeless time.

A living link with such masters as Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain, Benedict Kiely shares with William Trevor the title of Ireland's greatest living short story writer. His ''Collected Stories" takes us from 1963 to 1987, from the pastoral lyricism of the early stories of childhood to the mundane awfulness of ''Proxopera," which chronicles a proxy bombing by the Irish Republican Army and remains one of the greatest antiwar stories ever written.

A delicious social comedy set in Seattle at the height of the dot-com boom, Jonathan Raban's ''Waxwings" is also an elegant meditation on immigrant America. One hinge of the story is the Hungarian-born Englishman who thinks he is happily married but whose self-absorption leads him into a Kafkaesque nightmare. The other is a Chinese fast talker who arrives in a shipping container and quickly ascends through the shadow world of home repair and asbestos removal.

''There Are Jews in My House," a slim volume that sits lightly in the hand, is Lara Vapnyar's first collection of short stories, and a wonder of distillation and feeling. A young Russian mother hides her Jewish friend during the German occupation; a boy newly arrived in New York translates for his grandparents and stumbles upon their most intimate secrets. At once cool and compassionate, Vapnyar can encapsulate a life or a world in a few sentences.

''Old School," by Tobias Wolff, is a deceptively plain tale of one boy's attempt to win a writing competition that will reward him with an introduction to his literary hero. But this exquisitely observed novel of prep school life is also a masterful depiction of an outsider passing as a tribal insider. His narrator conceals his background by mimicking not only his fellows but also the Hemingwayesque prose that produces some of the novel's funniest passages.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times.

The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely
By Benedict Kiely

Drop City
By T. C. Boyle

I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company
em>By Brian Hall

The Known World
By Edward P. Jones

The Namesake
By Jhumpa Lahiri

Old School
By Tobias Wolff

There Are Jews in My House
By Lara Vapnyar

Waxwings
By Jonathan Raban

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