Books: Q. Can the U.S. Absorb 130 First Novelists a Year? A. No.

People have quixotic ways of seeking out the hard things in life—climbing Mount McKinley; pointing tiny boats through the high seas; getting married; commuting. Some special souls in search of a really refined form of self-punishment even begin to write. Each year only about 130 of them endure to achieve contracts from hardback publishing companies and so acquire the dubious title of "first novelists." And that is often only the beginning of their troubles.

This year, as usual, a handful of first novels arrived with the built-in interest that accompanies works by writers well...

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