An Irishman's 'great American novel' early favourite to win Booker prize

 

Two Irish authors, Joseph O'Neill and Sebastian Barry, are on the Man Booker longlist - along with five first novels and perennial favoured son Salman Rushdie

GEOGRAPHY, AS much as the enduring legacy of post- colonialism, is central in the novels selected for this year's Man Booker Prize. Among the 13 books featured on the longlist which was announced in London yesterday is the latest contender for the "great American novel", Netherland, which was written by an Irishman, Joseph O'Neill.

Also longlisted is playwright Sebastian Barry for The Secret Scripture, the story of Roseanne McNulty, approaching 100 and the victim of her family history.

Previous Booker winners, John Berger and Booker's perennial favoured son Salman Rushdie, feature on the longlist, while a zany first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, by Australian newcomer Steve Toltz, has been selected in place of his more established countrymen, double Booker winner Peter Carey, and a former Booker runner-up Tim Winton.

Published within two weeks of its Best of the Booker public vote, Man Booker, in this the prize's 40th year of literary argument, political gestures and eccentric choices, has this year announced its longlist several weeks earlier than usual. The inclusion of O'Neill comes as little surprise and observers will be pleased to see John Berger, now 82, who won the Booker McConnell Prize, as it then was, in 1972 with G, being longlisted for From A to X. The Sri Lankan-born Michelle de Kretser, long based in Australia, is in contention with her third novel, The Lost Dog, in which the search for a missing pet brings the central character on an intriguing journey through time and history.

Contemporary Indian fiction is well represented by Amitav Ghosh's stylish historical adventure, Sea of Poppies, which is set during the Opium Wars, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, an exposé of the corrupt heart of India's new tiger economy, and of course, Rushdie, who is longlisted for The Enchantress of Florence, a characteristically flamboyant performance.

Few Booker shortlists, never mind longlists, appear without that stock favourite, the "state of Britain" novel. This time the task has been tackled by the always interesting Phillip Hensher in a lengthy tale, The Northern Clemency, which begins in the 1970s and battles on into the 1990s through the shared experiences of two Sheffield families. At more than 700 pages it may well test the stamina of many readers, yet then Toltz's comic extravaganza about a father-son relationship races on beyond page 700 as well.

For Toltz, even securing this longlisting is an achievement, and it will help alert readers to this dazzlingly confident demonstration. The most exciting selection however is O'Neill's. Already a proven force as the author of the memoir, Blood-Dark Track, O'Neill immediately gathered the support of the bookies who have set him up as the favourite. Still, readers will look to Berger, something of a cult figure who has always been that rare thing, a British writer whose vision is wholly European.

Despite the presence of O'Neill, Berger, de Krester and Ghosh, it is difficult to grasp why the judges overlooked the great Scots writer James Kelman, a former winner, whose latest novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, is one of the finest books published anywhere and a major artistic achievement written with passion, intelligence and Kelman's pitch-perfect ear for speech as spoken. Kelman has consistently been misread by the British literary establishment and here the judges have wilfully ignored a great book.

Also disappointing is the surprise omission of Rob Raison's marvellous debut, God's Own Country. Irish writer David Parks deserved at the very least a longlisting for The Truth Commissioner, which always seemed destined for a place on the short list. It is impossible to explain, never mind justify, the appearance of Linda Grant's overblown The Clothes They Worein the absence of South African Damon Galgut's The Impostor. Galgut always looked a likely contender with his candid narrative about the new South Africa. Patrick McGrath's Traumaalso failed to attract the judges.

Yet again, the Pakistani-born Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers, has written with The Wasted Vigila major book about displacement - but has been overlooked.

The judges will be praised for selecting five first novels, and the geographical sweep will also please some commentators. Yet superior novels have been overlooked by adhering to agendas. O'Neill is already looking like a winner with a novel that is interestingly American. Still, Berger, the senior international figure on the longlist, should cause some debate, while the Australian young pretender, Toltz, is likely to win legions of fans with a conversational first-person narrative best described as domestic realism with plenty of laughs along the way.

For better or worse, the Man Booker shortlist will be announced on September 9th, and the winner on October 14th at the traditional gala supper.