by Walker Percy
Alfred A. Knopf, 1961
Walker Percy is a southern writer, now deceased, and The Moviegoer is his debut novel. It is considered by some to be a sort of Catcher in the Rye for adults. This book has been on my best fiction list for years, but I read it again recently to make sure it really belongs there. (I’ve read many other great novels since.) The Moviegoer still ranks high for me, mainly because of Percy’s unique style and use of language.
I don’t claim to entirely understand the novel; some of it is quite cryptic to me. Jack Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker who is approaching thirty years old, is bored and adrift in his empty life. He is somewhat intimidated by his domineering, aristocratic aunt and has a rather ill-defined relationship with his cousin Kate, who suffers from depression and anxiety. He finds escape in movies and in dating a parade of secretaries at his firm, but he is dissatisfied with the emptiness of American society at the dawn of the 1960s. (I wonder what he would think of American society today!)
He embarks on a “search” for greater meaning but seems to lack commitment and to be continually distracted from his search. The brilliance of the novel, though, is the frequent insightful observations Percy gives us (through his main character) regarding the human condition. Bolling certainly has an unconventional way of looking at things, and of articulating his views.
Jack Bolling undergoes no particular transformation in the course of the novel – in fact, he all but abandons his search – but the ending finds him in a state of greater acceptance and, in so doing, satisfies the reader. It is safe to say you will never read another novel quite like The Moviegoer.
by Cormac McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
This stunning 2006 novel stands apart from Cormac McCarthy’s other work. A nameless man and his nameless ten-year-old son journey south to the coast (where, exactly?) in the tenth year following the total devastation (nuclear?) of the land through which they pass. They travel on foot, pushing a shopping cart containing their belongings. The horrific landscape that surrounds them and the depraved humans, with whom they try – unsuccessfully – to avoid confrontation, make up the entire terrifying story. The boy is afraid, although he has no memory of an existence any more normal than this.
This dark, post-apocalyptic tale is written sparingly, with no chapters, no quotation marks around dialog, and with scene breaks on nearly every page. Don’t be put off by its unconventionality. The colors of the novel are gray, pale, black. When I finished reading The Road on Christmas morning in 2006 I was stunned; I literally couldn’t move for a few moments. It was that powerful.
Franz Kafka’s philosophy of fiction best describes this novel for me: “I think that we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us … We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
by J.M. Coetzee
Penguin Books, 1982
J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you like happy stories, look elsewhere. If you like powerful writing that deals profoundly with darker aspects of the human psyche, read on.
Waiting for the Barbarians is an intense and mythical allegory that takes place in an imaginary desolate land. The story is told by the magistrate of a remote village. Outsiders arrive in the village to drive the barbarians from the surrounding region. Torture is used on innocents who are suspected of having information about the helpless barbarians. The book is written from the magistrate’s cynical point of view in a way that is not self-serving but self-deprecating. The magistrate struggles to maintain his moral standard under a host of misgivings about himself. Despite his own doubts we know he is right.
Power, paranoia, and torture. There are uncanny parallels in Waiting for the Barbarians to the global stage in modern times. The human condition remains much the same.
by Markus Zusak
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
This amazing human story is most unconventionally written. The story is narrated by Death, who turns conventional thinking upside down. We mostly think that humans are haunted by – and fear – death. In The Book Thief we find rather that Death is haunted by humans, by their capacity both for selfless good and for unspeakable evil. Everyone dies, Death tells us, but he finds it troubling that his business is bolstered so disproportionately by the atrocities that evil human beings wreak upon other human beings. What better backdrop for Death to make this point than Nazi Germany during World War II?
I would add two personal observations: First, The Book Thief has been inexplicably classified as “juvenile fiction.” I would think “parental guidance suggested” is more appropriate, because the book might be quite disturbing for juveniles below a certain level of emotional maturity. Second (and related to the first point), there is much in The Book Thief for adults to ponder and contemplate; be sure to have a box of Kleenex close at hand.
by Victor Hugo
Originally published 1862
Although it is long, cumbersome, bigger than life, and rather unconventional in structure, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is arguably the greatest novel of all time. Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, has even said as much.
Les Miserables contains some of the most memorable characters in all of fiction: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Inspector Javert, the Thenardiers, Marius, Eponine, and more. Hugo’s love of France shines throughout the novel. But for me it is Hugo’s tremendous compassion for the poor and downtrodden that stands above all else. The story is a titanic struggle of good versus evil, with little ambiguity as to which is which.
I read most books I love more than once. Thus far I’ve read Les Miserables – all 1400 pages of it – twice. I will revisit it again and again.
by Karl Marlantes
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010
Having been fortunate to miss serving in Vietnam, later in my adult life I made it my personal mission to find a novel that would accurately portray what it was like to fight in one of our nation’s worst and most controversial wars. It took me until my mid-60s to find the novel I was searching for, and that novel is Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.
Besides its brutal realism, Matterhorn has all the elements I look for in great fiction: a gripping plot, attention to character development, relevance to real life, timeless themes, and brilliant style. Due to its subject, Matterhorn is not easy to read, but the reward for doing so is to understand something of the Vietnam experience.
You can learn more about Karl Marlantes’s historical masterpiece and my impressions of it by reading my Amazon review of Matterhorn here.
by Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997
I have long maintained that Charles Frazier’s first novel, Cold Mountain, is arguably the Great American Novel, and I’m not being facetious in saying this. Frazier spent seven years researching and writing Cold Mountain, immersed in the landscape and the history of which he tells. The novel is, quite simply, magnificent. With rich detail it takes the reader back in time to the Civil War era. Even Frazier’s language – as well as that of his characters – takes us back to that earlier time.
Cold Mountain‘s premise is simple: W.P. Inman, a wounded soldier, deserts the Confederate army and struggles to find his way home. Waiting for him there is Ada Monroe, a young Charleston woman whom Inman knew only briefly before going off to war. The structure of Cold Mountain has been compared to Homer’s The Odyssey. Inman’s encounters on his journey, as well as Ada’s struggles to endure on her deceased father’s farm in the North Carolina mountains, are fraught with compassion, kindness and cruelty, the beauty of the natural landscape, and the toll taken on the South by the futility of a nation at war against itself.
There are countless universal, timeless themes in the story and countless richly-developed characters the reader will never forget.
As with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Cold Mountain is Frazier’s singular masterpiece. I’ve read his more recent novels, Thirteen Moons and Nightwoods, but neither holds a candle to Cold Mountain. Nonetheless, because of Frazier’s achievement in his first novel, I will continue to read anything this man writes. Moreover, I’ve read Cold Mountain six times over the years and look forward to my next encounter with his masterpiece of fiction.
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Originally published 1925
I just finished my sixth (seventh?) reading of this American classic. It is, in my view, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It is rare that an author is able to say so much in such a short work. His themes derive from the Roaring ’20s. but they are universal, and just as relevant today. The characters are deeply nuanced: Gatsby most of all, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker. Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, is the humble but not impartial observer. Fitzgerald’s style is crisp, articulate, and brilliant; there is unsurpassed power and impact in his choice of words and phrases.
As an author myself, I find that, although I might aspire to write as eloquently as Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, I’m afraid I will never come close. Some of my favorite authors have written one great novel that stands head and shoulders above all their other work. Fitzgerald is one of those authors, and The Great Gatsby is his standout work.