Fifty American Novelists

In January 2004 someone asked me to give him a reading list of American novels.  Here, with a few slight changes, is the list I gave him.  I stopped at fifty.

I am not a professor authorized to name a canon, so these are only good starts on authors who have given me much pleasure and insight and, with the best of them, either a new way of seeing the world or boffo yux.  There are plenty I forgot and plenty I never read and plenty more where these came from.  Also most of these are not what you’d call “contemporary” writers, in the sense of having their books issued and reviewed this year.  That’s just my taste, I guess. 

I am writing as if you never read any of these, which I’m sure is not true.  And I’m just transcribing my notes, not attempting a conspectus of the American novel.  Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some books you may like.  If you don’t like one, move onto the next.  Surface of a great literature is barely scratched.

MARK TWAIN.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This really is the seminal American novel in a lot of different ways, plus it’s very entertaining and richly funny.  The end is weak but never mind.  Also exceptionally good books by Twain are Roughing It (about a trip to the west) and Life on the Mississippi (about steamboats) – but they are not novels.

HERMAN MELVILLE.  Moby-Dick.  Don’t be afraid of the size – it is one of the greatest novels ever written, and by a stylist of such power and originality that he transcends 19C conventions as few of his contemporaries were able to do.  Long, but you don’t want it to end.  Skip the opening collection of learned quotes about whales and start right in at “Call me Ishmael.”  His Whitejacket, about the 19th century American navy, is also magnificent, and much shorter.

If you don’t read anything else on this list, you will be glad you read Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick.

I turn now to my notes, in roughly the order I jotted them down.  After the two writers just mentioned came:

ERNEST HEMINGWAY.  Every bit as great a writer as he is said to be.  For a good first taste try A Farewell to Arms – short, clear, perfect.  Hemingway said his goal was to write “one true thing.”  I learned to write from him and Joyce.  Also wonderful books are For Whom the Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War, and The Old Man and the Sea, the purest distillation of Hemingway’s style.  His short stories are magnificent and his journalism, anthologized in a book called By-Line Ernest Hemingway, is some of the best ever done.

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD.  Always follows Hemingway in people’s minds, which H. liked and F. resented.  He probably doesn’t belong in this rank on merit, but his voice is so important I can’t exclude him.  The Great Gatsby is a good introduction – if you like that there’s more, including good stories. 

JOHN O’HARA.  I have been complaining for years that O’Hara is underrated.  He had an eye for manner and detail that has never been equaled.  When I travel abroad I always bring a book by O., because he distilled the America of his time down to the last matchbook.  His fictional town, Gibbsville, was really Pottsville, Pa., and he knew East Coast society as if he belonged to it.  For a juicy introduction try Ten North Frederick (long), Appointment in Samarra (short), and Butterfield 8 (sordid – starring Elizabeth Taylor, but I repeat myself).  Pal Joey, starring Frank Sinatra, is an epistolary novel and very funny.  And lots more, plus a million terrific short stories.

JOHN STEINBECK.  I laughed when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962 but I know better now.  A great writer all the way through.  The Grapes of Wrath is his greatest work, in parallel chapters (odds about the Joad family, evens about larger social events).  Also terrific is Tortilla Flat, a comic novel written in English as if it were Spanish (For Whom the Bell Tolls does the same thing with a different kind of Spanish, and a different purpose).  A diptych of short stories – Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday – is also very funny and brilliantly drawn.  It’s hard to think you wouldn’t like The Wayward Bus or The Pearl

PHILIP ROTH.  My favorite is Sabbath’s Theatre, but (and?) it has a lot of sex in it.  His Zuckerman novels are fascinating – the first four, beginning with The Ghost Writer, are collected in Zuckerman Bound.  Zuckerman is Roth’s alter ego and narrator in five more novels, including American Pastoral and The Human Stain.  Also very good: Operation Shylock and The Professor of Desire.  I hardly know where to stop with this great writer.  Portnoy’s Complaint is a riot, and his short stories in Letting Go are awfully good too. 

JOHN UPDIKE.  He wrote consistently good stuff for decades.  His magnum opus is a tetralogy: Rabbit, Run is the first, and the others fill out the life story of one man.  A superb writer and a fine stylist.  If you are not up to a tetralogy, try Couples (lots of sex), The Centaur, Memories of the Ford Administration (lots about President Buchanan), A Month of Sundays (comic novel about a clergyman drying out) or The Coup, a very unusual work set in Africa.  Also many volumes of short stories.

Now here are a bunch of other novelists, not in any special order.  All of them wrote novels worth recommending – if you like them there are usually more by the same author.

Joseph Heller.  I have read Catch-22 three or four times, and always find more in it.  It is a masterpiece, but Something Happened is very good too.

Jack Kerouac.  On the Road is the seminal Beat novel, and a good read too.  I liked the diptych The Dharma Bums (Beats go up a mountain) and Desolation Angels (Beats come down again).

J. D. Salinger.  The Catcher in the Rye is as great a novel as Huckleberry Finn, with which it has a lot in common.  Franny and Zoey, a pair of novellas, is also way up there.  Plus Eight Stories.

Herman Wouk.  He wrote a lot of mediocre stuff, but The Caine Mutiny is first-rate.       

Gore Vidal.  Since we’re talking American novels, I recommend Burr and LincolnJulian is wonderful also, but it is about Emperor Julian (called by Christians the Apostate) and so a little off our subject.

James Michener.  The Bridges of Toko-Ri.  Also Tales of the South Pacific (related stories).

John Hersey.  Remembered today most for Hiroshima, not a novel, but A Bell for Adano is a terrific comic story of a small town in Italy under American occupation. 

Larry McMurtry.  Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo.  Great characters and a great feeling for the Old West.

Robert Penn Warren.  All the King’s Men, about Huey Long even though he said it wasn’t, and Night Rider, about the Tobacco Wars, both great introductions to his work.

James Baldwin.  If Beale Street Could Talk is my favorite of his novels, but Go Tell It on the Mountain, his autobiographical first novel, and Giovanni’s Room, a gay classic, are also wonderful books.

James Gould Cozzens.  By Love Possessed and Guard of Honor are good places to start.  Also two fine novellas: Castaway and S.S. San Pedro.

Irwin Shaw.  Start with Rich Man, Poor Man or Two Weeks in Another Town.

Ring Lardner.  You Know Me, Al.  Epistolary comic novel about baseball in the old days.  Wildly funny.

Anita Loos.  As long as we’re into epistolary comic novels, who could resist Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and maybe also its sequel Gentlemen Marry Brunettes?  It doesn’t all have to be Moby-Dick.

T. C. Boyle.  A currently active writer – he’s written a lot but two of the best are The Tortilla Curtain, about two Mexicans trying to survive in the canyons of LA, and Water Music, about Mungo Park, the Scottish African explorer. 

J. F. Powers.  A Catholic writer but why not – I recommend the funny and beautifully observed Morte d’Urban, about a worldly priest in the Midwest.

MacKinlay Kantor.  Two Civil War novels – Andersonville and Long Remember – are among the best historical novels ever.

Damon Runyon.  His work is all short stories, but he’s such an important American voice I can’t omit him, plus he’s extremely funny.  Damon Runyon Omnibus is a good collection.

William Faulkner.  A great enough writer to deserve a higher place on the list, in capital letters, but I never liked his books, even while really admiring his writing.  That’s worth looking at again.  As I Lay Dying would be one to start with.  Joel Solkoff recommends The Reivers as more accessible – it won a Pulitzer Prize.  See what you think. 

Garrison Keillor.  Just as Faulkner knows Mississippi, and O’Hara knows Pennsylvania, Keillor knows Minnesota, and WLT: A Radio Romance (novel) and Wobegon Days (stories) are up there among the best American comic writing.

Edwin O’Connor.  The Last Hurrah.  About Boss Curley of Boston, even though he said it wasn’t.

Carl Hiaasen.  Florida comic writer.  Try Strip Tease or Double Whammy

Max Shulman.  As long as we’re cruising low you might like The Feather Merchants.

Raymond Chandler.  The hard-boiled detective who set the tone.  Try The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye

John McDonald.  His Travis McGee novels are hard-boiled but soft-hearted, an irresistible combination.  Pick any of them – they all have colors in the title.

Rex Stout.  The Nero Wolfe mysteries.  If you like one – any one – there are 40 more.  Fer-de-Lance was the first one.  Start off with a book that’s one novel rather than three novellas, as some are.

J. P. Marquand.  The Late George Apley.  Another epistolary novel – very sly and funny, about a Boston stuffed shirt.

Upton Sinclair.  A muckraker and dated now, but The Jungle is a raw slice of life that really grabs a person.

Theodore Dreiser.  The Financier and The Titan are two remarkable novels about Charles Yerkes, the Chicago streetcar tycoon.  The third in the trilogy, The Stoic, I cannot recommend.

Sinclair Lewis.  An acquired taste.  Try Babbitt or Main Street to see if you can acquire it.

William Burroughs.  An acquired taste I never acquired.  But you might like it – Naked Lunch is the one to read.

Thomas Pynchon.  Another one I never quite got.  But Gravity’s Rainbow is said to be his masterwork, and V. next to that.  I could never manage to finish either one, but I keep trying.

Henry James.  An incredible bore, but Washington Square is so interesting I am going to revisit him.

Thomas Wolfe.  Look Homeward, Angel is the one to read if you want to taste him.  I loved him as a teenager but on second reading decades later he fell a little flat.  See what you think.

Tom Wolfe.  Not Thomas.  The Bonfire of the Vanities is a masterpiece – I’ve read it twice so far.

Saul Bellow.  A great writer even if hard going sometimes.  Start with Henderson the Rain King or The Dean’s December.

E. B. White.  Charlotte’s Web is a classic – you might like Stuart Little also.

Stephen Crane.  The Red Badge of Courage.  A hard book to forget.

Art Spiegelman.  MAUS and MAUS II.  Definitely an American novel even though in pictures.  Read them both all the way through as one book.

Norman Mailer.  The Naked and the Dead is a gritty tale of the Pacific War.

John Kenneth Galbraith.  The Triumph.  A satirical story of American diplomacy, and a jewel.

I could go on and on – I’m past my notes now, each one I write suggests another one.  But that should be enough to get you started.  No disrespect is intended to hundreds of fine (and some even great) American novelists not on this list.