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March 18, 2004

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

by Ron Hogan

(well, okay, not my friend, yet, but can't resist a Morrissey reference)

sharpe.jpgYou may have already seen Sara Nelson's recounting of the dark horse success Matthew Sharpe's enjoying with The Sleeping Father. Rejected by 20 "big" houses, starting with Villard, which had published his first novel and short stories, Sharpe eventually ended up taking a $1,000 advance from Soft Skull Press. But he's not only getting the last laugh, he's undoubtedly already starting to earn royalties just a few months after publication, since this trade paperback original has been getting well reviewed in many book sections. And that's even before Susan Isaacs went on Today and told viewers they should read it. Which doesn't quite lead to Oprah numbers, sure, but undoubtedly takes both the author and the publisher to a whole new level of sales.

"It's the best thing I hope to read all year," Ed Park writes in the Village Voice, "and if it isn't, this will be a very good year indeed." Claire Dederer lavished somewhat more subdued praise in the NYTBR, comparing Sharpe favorably to Charles Baxter and identifying him as "an ironist who actually seems to like other people." At Small Spiral Notebook, Felicia Sullivan gives the novel points over Delillo's White Noise, though she thinks it may be a bit too finely tuned.

Only Zachary Houle seems to want to throw cold water on the party. "You might lie there," he says, "wondering how an author with two previously published books under his belt--one who has taught creative writing at Columbia University and Bard College--could possibly produce something so awful." He accuses Sharpe not only of lacking substance, but being ten years behind the times with his themes. I'm only a little ways in, but I don't see that at all. I'm leaning towards Sullivan's observation about the excessive poise, due to Sharpe's high levels of detachment, but it's a stylistic choice I can respect. And what Houle sees as past the point of trendiness, I'm willing to see as having become commonplace enough that renewed scrutiny such as Sharpe's (and, oh, how I am holding back the effort to pun here) has the potential to produce different kinds of insight.

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