Defeat Is Agonizing. In These 2 Books, It’s Also Thrilling.

Dear readers,

I am not an ideal viewer of major sporting events for many reasons, but one in particular is how terrible I inevitably feel, beyond all reason and actual personal investment, for the losing team. While confetti and Gatorade rain down on the champions of whatever Super Bowl/World Series/Grand Prix, my eyes always go to the runners-up.

Objectively, I know that the defeated ones are in almost every other regard already winners: fit gods with ropy quads, admired, adored and no doubt absurdly well compensated. And yet here they sit with slumped shoulders and wet eyes, like small boys left at a bus stop. Oh, cruel world!

Fiction, though, is another story. Give me your losers and laggards, your pokey puppies who limbo right under rock-bottom expectations and then have to go home and lie down. For a few hours at least, novels with protagonists like these allow me, one of so many busy bees in New York City’s go-go honeycomb, to flail vicariously, a smug literary tourist among the lonely-hearts and lost souls.

To be clear, that is in no way a synonym for storytelling that is inert or hopeless or dull. The main characters in this week’s selections may lead lives of quiet desperation or mere beige mediocrity, but their tales are told with sharpness and verve, real flair in the failure.


Fiction, 1955

Poor Judith, with her careworn clothes and face like a flavorless biscuit. She’s the picture of genteel midcentury spinsterhood, a 40-ish virgin who finds herself ensconced, once again, in a shabby Belfast boardinghouse. There are odd jobs to add to her pitiful fixed income — mostly a dwindling roster of indifferent piano students — and the small pleasures of visiting her only real friends, the cozy-to-bursting O’Neill family, every Sunday after church.

There’s even a fellow lodger at her new home who carries the tantalizing whiff of romantic possibility. Mr. Madden is a blustery meat slab of a man, “well-fed, rough-red” and recently returned from several decades in Manhattan, where he did something “in the hotel business, right on Times Square.” Not quite the dream Romeo of her more refined sensibilities, maybe, but who can be choosy?

We hope for nearly half the novel that some kind of reparation awaits the painfully lonely (and yes, passionate) Miss Hearne; a redemptive tale of never-too-lateness dipped in tea and yellowed curtain lace. But tea, it turns out, is not Judith’s drink, and there’s a reason she’s been through so many boardinghouses.

So her downfall begins, a spectacular unraveling that Moore traces in stark, feverish prose to match his protagonist’s increasingly fractured mental state. Catholicism looms large (this is Ireland), as do the oppressive sexual mores and class consciousness of the time, all of it detailed with a defiant frankness that no doubt contributed to the novel’s initial difficulties in finding a publisher.

Perhaps it sounds as if I am trying to sell you several hours of clinical depression? But I swear that the writing here is so keenly perceptive, so piercing and sympathetic, it rattles your bones.

Read if you like: Off-brand whiskey, rain delays, the Paul Schrader movie “First Reformed.”
Available from: A 2010 reissue from NYRB Classics, or a well-stocked used-book store.

William is the firstborn of identical twins by a full seven minutes, but that is the end of his supremacy. What he turns out to be in Anastas’s droll comic novel is more like the first pancake: misbegotten and ragged around the edges, a lumpy undercooked understudy for his radiant brother, Clive.

While Clive thrives, William staggers through the stages of life as if they were stations of the cross, a hapless misfit plagued by mysterious skin conditions and general system failures of all kinds. Though he tests well, academia mostly eludes him, sports are a nonstarter and the girls he sets his heart on tend to be either indifferent grifters or loopy dipsomaniacs.

Even the cult William joins once he graduates college (it takes him five years to earn an undistinguished degree) and moves across the country to San Francisco turns out to be a bust, a bedraggled scrum of “lost souls who wanted to belong to something larger than themselves and, in return, didn’t mind performing a little housework.”

But save your pity face, please; William wears incompetence like a golden crown, his resistance to meeting his potential its own kind of performance art, “a lifelong project in and of itself.” In that he is, at least and at last, an unqualified success.

Read if you like: Frederick Exley, the Beck song “Loser,” TV shows that get canceled after one season.
Available from: A 2009 trade paperback from Dial Press, or perhaps a sore winner’s recycling bin.

  • Stream the 1966 Cold War spy thriller “Torn Curtain,” whose post-“Judith Hearne” screenplay Brian Moore co-wrote after fleeing gray Ireland and eventually settling in the sunnier and far more permissive climes of Malibu? It’s nobody’s favorite Hitchcock, but it does have peak Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.

  • Throw yourself on the train tracks of some gloriously grim 19th-century Russian lit, because who does flop eras better? Begin, maybe, with a dip into Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 bed-rot classic “Oblomav.”

  • Take our own critic Jennifer Szalai’s advice and pick up the philosopher Costica Bradatan’s 2022 tome “In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility”? And thus enjoy the happy frisson of feeling superior to one of its flagrantly imperfect subjects, Gandhi. (It’s OK; pride cometh before the humility.)

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