The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.

I Am Not Your Negro.

I Am Not Your Negro is the hip outsider’s pick to win Best Documentary Feature at this weekend’s Academy Awards, a highly topical film that includes four of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. Based on an unfinished work by author James Baldwin, who got 30 pages into the project (titled Remember this House) before abandoning the project, IANYN tries to … I mean, I don’t really know what it tried to do. It’s so disorganized, with no narrative thread whatsoever, or even a sensible internal chronology, that less than an hour into it I was debating whether to stay for the remainder. If it weren’t for the mesmerizing footage of Baldwin himself speaking to various audiences and on television, I wouldn’t have anything good to say about it.

Ostensibly, IANYN is supposed to fulfill Baldwin’s vision to tell some story of the civil rights movement through the lives and deaths of three friends of his, all murdered for their work in attempting to secure basic freedoms for black Americans: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew them all well, well enough to know their families, to be in pictures with their children, to be at all of their funerals, but nothing in this film illuminates any of the three figures in a way we haven’t seen countless times before. The only person illuminated here is Baldwin, and that is the only part when the film works.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of Baldwin himself in IANYN, and my word was he an amazing speaker. He was charismatic and eloquent, in control of himself and the audience, with the author’s flair for the dramatic finish. He appears to be speaking extemporaneously in all of these appearances, but with the confidence of one who knows every word he’s about to speak from now until the end of the talk. And even in the longest sequences we see in the film, he remains on point, never digressing, even throwing in sarcastic asides and poetic flourishes like alliteration or repeated phrases. I would watch two hours of nothing but watching James Baldwin give talks about race.

Two of those bits of archival footage dominate this documentary. One is from a talk Baldwin gave at the University of Cambridge in 1965, a searing soliloquy on race that is by turns insightful and damning, one that ended with a standing ovation from the English audience (white, as far as I could see) that genuinely seemed to take Baldwin by surprise. The other is from an appearance he made on the Dick Cavett show in 1968, interspersed throughout IANYN, but when it opens the movie, we are treated to Cavett asking Baldwin a question where he repeatedly uses the word “Negro.” By the time I was born five years later, that word had become, unquestionably, a racial slur. To hear that word used so casually by a white man on a television show recent enough to be in the era of color (TV, that is) is beyond jarring. If the filmmakers wanted to get my attention, they succeeded. If that word isn’t followed by “Leagues,” I don’t want or expect to hear it. Baldwin certainly appears unhappy with the word’s use, but his response – that the situation for the black American at that time might be “hopeless” – subsumes any discussion about Cavett’s dated language.

The film as a whole, however, never finds its footing. It jumps around from civil rights hero to civil rights hero, moving forward and back in time, mixing in Baldwin’s words on his friends as appropriate but never enlightening us about those men. Had Baldwin lived to complete the project, he would likely have told us things about the three men that we did not know – and, in the case of Evers, give a forgotten hero some well-needed memorializing. (Evers was shot and killed by a white nationalist, Byron de la Beckwith, part of the burgeoning alt-right movement in 1963.)

This is not a biography of Baldwin, although I think such a project could be a tremendous contribution to our cultural canon. IANYN doesn’t mention any of his literary works; only mentions his sexual orientation once, as part of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI’s report on him; and never explains how he became someone invited to appear on talk shows to discuss major social and political issues of the day. But it also tells us nothing insightful about Baldwin’s friendships with the three other subjects. Simply giving us something in Baldwin’s words, read here by Samuel L. Jackson, doesn’t make for much of a watch, and those words don’t help tie together the film’s attempts to explore segregation in culture such as showing racist depictions in film or, in perhaps the most shocking sequence (to my eyes), the series of ads from the 1950s that used sambo-style images to sell products to white audiences.

Later, there’s a clip of a promotional film titled The Secret of Selling the Negro Market, which appears to be a U.S. Department of Commerce production explaining to companies that they can sell things to black Americans but might need new strategies to do so. IANYN neglects to mention that the film was financed and produced by Johnson Publishing, a multimedia company founded by the African-American couple John H. and Eunice Johnson, the same company that publishes Ebony and Jet magazines – a rather salient point that puts the anachronistic Secret of Selling in a very different context.

I’ve seen the near-universal acclaim for this film, and I am comfortable on the other side of the street. It’s just not a good treatment of the subject. The footage of Baldwin speaking is wonderful, and there are some segments of our cultural mistreatment of blacks (in film, on TV, in advertisements) that were new to me and should never be forgotten or swept under the rug. However, IANYN lacks any cohesive thread, and its only point of view is that racism is bad. I already knew that and I assume you do too.

The Sellout.

My updated ranking of the top five farm systems right now is up for Insiders.

I first heard about Paul Beatty’s farcical novel The Sellout when looking at predictions of nominees for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which also led me to Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew … neither of which ended up a finalist for the prize, won by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. It did win the National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, and ended up on several top ten lists for 2015. I’d already picked up Beatty’s book at Changing Hands during one of my trips to Arizona, however, and am glad I found it, because it is absolutely hilarious – offensive by design, taking Zadie Smith’s brand of hysterical realism and distilling it through a filter of American racism to produce a unique work of indignant comedy.

The narrator of Beatty’s book, known only as “Me” in one of many examples of absurdist wordplay in the novel, grows up in the Los Angeles-area town of Dickens, so poor that cartographers prefer to ignore its existence. It’s a segregated, neighborhood originally filled with farms, but the only farm remaining is the one the narrator runs, having inherited it from his militant black atheist sociologist father, who had some rather interesting ideas on child-rearing. (The novel’s satirical strain runs deep; the narrator is raised by a single father, and has no idea who his mother is, eventually finding the woman his father claims gave birth to him only to learn she had no idea what he was talking about.)

After his father is killed by a white policeman – prescient, or merely evergreen? – the narrator embarks on a bizarre quest to reestablish Dickens on the map and improve its lot by reinstating segregation, first on the local bus route and then in the local schools. He even takes a man as a “slave,” although the slave sort of volunteers for the role, doesn’t work, and loves to rant about the lost Little Rascals films in which he appeared. He erects new road signs and paints a literal border on the ground around Dickens, all of which has intended and unintended consequences. Of course, he can only get so far in this effort without running afoul of white authorities, and he ends up facing the Supreme Court – getting high on one of his hilariously named strains of marijuana while waiting in the corridor.

The novel’s best character, however, is Foy Cheshire, the would-be intellectual whose ambition outstrips his abilities, and whose brand of liberation theology involves quixotic endeavors like rewriting classics to improve or star African-American characters, such as The Great Blacksby, Uncle Tom’s CondoThe Point Guard in the Rye. By turns fatuous and pathetic, Foy is part con man, part demagogue, representative of a brand of empty black intellectualism for which Beatty appears to have no use whatsoever.

Beatty doesn’t spare anyone or anything in The Sellout, and that includes many jokes at every race’s expense that, if we’re all being honest here, wouldn’t see the light of day if they came from a white writer. I have no problem with this; if anything, the parody is far more effective coming from a writer of color, lampooning many of the people and institutions that purport to help black and Latino Americans but are primarily there just to help themselves. Charles Dickens was known for social commentary in his work, some of it veering into satire; Beatty draws on that tradition of criticism, marrying it with realism run amok – what critic James Wood termed “hysterical realism” in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – for a sendup that scorches the very earth Me uses to grow his prize satsumas, watermelons, and weed.

I’m sure there are allusions and subtexts in The Sellout that I missed or simply couldn’t appreciate as a white man who grew up in a very white town and knew racism because I read about it once, but I still found the book by turns funny and thought-provoking. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in the last few years, and pushes the boundaries of what modern realism in literature can include. There may simply be more here that I didn’t catch.

Next up: Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal, on how the Jesuits did everything they could to stamp out the mathematical concept that gave rise to the calculus.

Stick to baseball, 5/5/16.

My one Insider piece this week was a draft blog post on Matt Manning, Nolan Jones, Blake Rutherford, and more, with all three of those guys possibly going in the top ten picks next month. Eric and I will post a top 100 ranking on Wednesday and my first mock will go up the following week. I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I’ve signed up for Tinyletter and you can subscribe to my newsletter – which I think will be mostly links to my work – via that link.

And now, the links…

  • Thomas Friedman isn’t always my bag but his piece on the potential self-immolation of the Republican Party is measured and compelling, parceling out some blame to the other side as well.
  • OZY has a profile of geneticist Eric Vilain, who studies the relationship between our genes and our sexual orientations and identities. His conclusions are controversial and not always in line with the modern/progressive conventional wisdom, such as the claim that “while some gender-nonconforming boys later identify as trans women, the vast majority — more than 80 percent — outgrow their gender dysphoria by puberty, identifying as gay men.”
  • This is disturbing: A representative of the American Family Association, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that they’re sending men into women’s restrooms at Target to “test” the store’s transfriendly bathroom policy, but the AFA issued a curiously-worded denial. It seems like they’re saying they’re not “encouraging men” to do this, but the statement doesn’t deny they’ve sent members into women’s bathrooms, right?
  • My friend and colleague John Buccigross was the subject of a NY Times profile that focuses on his #bucciovertimechallenge idea, which has already raised six figures for hockey-related charities. John also has excellent taste in music, by the way.
  • I’m actually not a fan of James Baldwin’s signature work, Go Tell It On the Mountain, but I still recommend this profile of the influential gay African-American writer and poet from the New York Review of Books.
  • Five things you can do to help your brain “stay young,” or at least to try to keep it plastic as you age.
  • The Las Vegas Review-Journal has become a farce of a newspaper, as the recent dismissal of Stephanie Grimes indicates.
  • I linked to this on Twitter in the aftermath of the Chiefs drafting Tyreek Hill, who beat and choked his pregnant girlfriend while at Oklahoma State, but it’s worth reposting: Women who’ve been strangled by their abusive partners are seven times more likely to end up homicide victims. Strangulation is not a felony crime in twelve states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania; if you’re in one of those states, contact your local legislator and see if you can help get the law changed.
  • Meanwhile, two hosts at WHB 610 in Kansas City, including Danny Parkins (on whose show I’ve appeared many times), set up a fundraising page for a local domestic violence shelter that has already raised over $12K.
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation is starting a program to try to help communities isolated or left behind by infrastructure improvements in their areas. When communities aren’t adequately served by transportation systems, their local economies suffer.
  • This is fun for geography junkies: an interactive map of world regimes by type from 1816 to 2011. The good news is that the global trend toward greater democracy is still going strong. And if you look at the red (least free) countries, you’ll find several of the worst economies on earth, and maybe you’ll wonder why the fuck we’re sending $43 million a year in aid to Swaziland, especially since that country’s highly corrupt dictatorship has sold donated food for cash before.
  • A quality longread from the NY Times on whether prostitution should be a crime. It’s a difficult question even if you get beyond the morality of it, since prostitution is often less than consensual, but one thing that I think is clear is that the sex workers should not be charged with crimes for their actions, as they’re very often victims themselves.

Let the Great World Spin.

My ranking of the top prospects for 2015 impact is up for Insiders, and I held a (somewhat hard to read) Facebook chat about that piece on Tuesday. I also have a piece up for Paste from my visit to Toyfair NYC earlier this month, talking about recent and upcoming releases from major boardgame publishers.

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award (a prize I’ve always found to be even more eccentric in its choices than the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) in 2009, and the book is saturated with praise from critics and other authors for its scope, its structure, its characters, everything about it. I almost feel inadequate as a reader saying I thought it was a nice* book, but I just did not connect with it on any of those other levels.

*I’m using “nice” here somewhat sarcastically, sort of like saying it was “interesting.” It’s a very good book, just not a life-changing one for me.

McCann’s gambit here is to use the day that Philippe Petit walked the tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center as the central event that links all of the stories in the novel, stories involving a set of characters whose lives are improbably connected by tiny threads that strain credulity. It’s a short story novel, but far better structured and plotted than Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the more perplexing Pulitzer winners I’ve read (which is a bit more than half of them). The first story introduces us to the Corrigan brothers, two Irishmen living in New York, one a monk (of sorts) whose mission is to help the various prostitutes who work under the Deegan Bridge, near his apartment in the south Bronx, a character at once incredibly compelling yet also drawn in impossibly sharp lines without enough graying around the edges. One of the prostitutes has two babies, who end up in foster care with a mother who’s lost three sons to the Vietnam War, who is in a social/support group with other mothers who’ve lost sons to the war, including Claire, the slightly neglected Park Avenue wife of a successful judge who happens to be the one who draws both the case Petit and of the aforementioned prostitute and her mother, arrested for robbing a john a year or so prior. Each of these characters takes a turn at the center of the narration, although only some get the first person treatment.

The precision of these narratives and the spidery fabric that connects them is itself impressive, but more from the perspective of respect for the craft than from a readability or even a literary point of view – ultimately, if those stories weren’t connected, this wouldn’t be a novel at all, but a story collection. Where McCann succeeds most is in varying his voices to put the reader inside the minds of the diverse cast of characters he’s assembled; the prostitutes and the socialite and the monk and his more temporally-minded brother all have to have different voices, even if it’s a third-person narrator and McCann manages to do that well and craft each character with great empathy, without ever coming off as overly sentimental or, given the racial mixture he’s describing, prejudicial. It would be too easy to turn his black prostitutes into blackface caricatures of a very real underclass, but McCann avoids that trap with great skill.

But by shifting its focus Let the Great World Spin also avoids your grasp; it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to any character or to the story when they change so frequently, but also because McCann keeps them at arm’s length from the reader, with the exception of the Park Avenue mother Claire, who misses her son and yet wants more than anything to find a kinship with other grieving mothers who begin to separate themselves from her when they see her home and assume she’s far wealthier than they are. Her husband, Solomon, was one of the book’s most hackneyed characters, yet she pulsed with life, with her grief intertwined with her social anxiety, her desire to be just one of the gals, each of whom has also lost a son in a pointless war. She felt so real that I could picture her gait on the expensive carpet, her expressions, her tiny movements and gestures, all because of how McCann depicted her inner monologue. If all of his characters had lived and breathed on the pages the way she did, I would probably be banging the table for all of you to read this book. Instead, I found it a skillfully written work, an enjoyable read, but not one I was rushing to finish due to narrative greed or a deep emotional connection with the characters.

Next up: I’ve already finished The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and begun George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December.

The Klaw 102: the top novels of all time, version 3.

A few months late, again, but I have updated my own personal ranking of the 100 greatest novels I’ve read, extending the list once again by another title to bring us to 102. The top 20 remain unchanged from the last version, but I’ve very slightly altered their order. I’ve deleted six titles and added new ones at 102, 93, 86, 82, 53, 40, and 21. Most of the book descriptions are the same as they were on the last rankings.

The guidelines, from the original post with one small edit:

My criteria are wholly subjective. The primary criterion is how much I enjoyed the book, accounting for more than half of the “score” I might give each book if I was inclined to go to that degree. I also considered the book’s literary value, and its significance in the annals of literature, whether by its influence, critical reception, or the modern perspective on the book. There is nothing on here I don’t like.

There are only four items on this list that run beyond 1000 pages, one of which is a series, and another is two books that I combined into a single entry. The third is the longest single book I’ve ever read, although that was originally published as two volumes itself. By and large, the one hundred books listed here are highly readable, accessible even to the casual reader.

I did omit popular fiction series, even ones I enjoyed, so there is no Harry Potter and no Jasper Fforde. I slipped P.G. Wodehouse in there, since his works have influenced at least two generations of writers and performers, and there are four or five works on there that might straddle the line between popular fiction and literature. You’ll also notice the absence of some works of undeniable literary importance that I either haven’t read or just flat-out didn’t like. I make no apologies for these omissions.

The bottom line: My list, my call.

One last point. I’m not an English professor or a professional book critic or any other kind of literary analyst. I read for pleasure, mostly, and the fact that I like to write about books I’ve read is a function of my obsession for breaking everything down, whether it’s a player’s swing or a meal or a book. My main qualification for doing this list is that I’ve read a lot. If that’s not good enough for you, door’s on your left.

102. Lush Life, by Richard Price. Full review. The newest novel on this list, published in 2008, is a thoroughly engrossing read by a former Wire writer who brings that same layered feel to this book, with one crime at the story’s center spiraling out into a series of subplots involving multi-dimensional characters, one of which, as it turns out, is New York City itself.

101. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, by Don Robertson. Full review. A bit of a sentimental pick – a young boy sets off across Cleveland with his sister in a toy wagon and ends up becoming a hero in the face of a horrible industrial disaster.
100 The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy. Full review. A comedy about an American girl in Paris whose cluelessness lands her in one mess after another. Brilliant and, for the moment, back in print.

99. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Full review. The history of Afghanistan, told as the tragic story of two childhood friends separated not by war, but by a child’s severe error of judgment. Whether he finds redemption as an adult is left to the reader, but unlike, say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Hosseini’s work at least opens the door.

98. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. The debut novel by a Zimbabwean playwright, Nervous Conditions might be the best work ever written about the plight of women in even the “developed” parts of Africa, as they have to deal simultaneously with traditional and modern pressures in their lives.

97. Lonesome Dove , by Larry McMurtry. Full review. Just an incredible read, a long, meandering epic of the old West, a meditation on existence and our need to move. A highly American novel. Oh, and it’s an early example of the art form now known as the “bromance.”

96. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Full review. Ishiguro’s romantic tragedy within a dystopian alternate reality is imperfect, but the societal aspect is powerful and incredibly disturbing.

95. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle. The grand-daddy of all mysteries, and the only full-length novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, Hound is as good a mystery as you’ll find, with Holmes at his brilliant and smarmy best.

94. Native Son, by Richard Wright. Perhaps the American equivalent to Germinal for its sheer anger and social commentary, Native Son is the story of a black man who is hemmed in by white society and whose culpability for his crimes may not entirely be his own.

93. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Full review. An Orange Prize-winning novel by a Nigerian-born Englishwoman who tells a harrowing story of families caught up in the Nigerian-Biafran civil war in the 1960s, in which the majority Nigerian government used starvation to defeat the Biafrans and commit one of history’s least-remembered genocides. Adichie’s true achievement in the novel is telling this horrid, important history through several smart, compelling characters who are caught up in something they can’t control.

92. Monarch of the Glen, by Compton Mackenzie. Full review. Brilliantly funny take on a Scottish lord who doesn’t take kindly to a bunch of hippies trespassing on his land, leading to a generational clash as well as a commentary on the changing structure of Scottish (and British) society at the time. Currently out of print in the U.S., although it remains in print in England.

91. The Reivers, by William Faulkner. Criminally overlooked today by most Faulkner readers, The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1963 and is Faulkner’s most accessible and light-hearted work. It’s a comedy set, as always, in Yoknapatawpha County, focusing on three ne’er-do-wells who steal a car, consort with prostitutes, race a horse, and try to get ahead by any means.

90. Right Ho, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse. I’m not sure how to choose any single Wodehouse novel, or where to rank them on this list. I’ve read nearly all of the Jeeves novels and am hard-pressed to pick a favorite, so I’ve chosen this one, which also made the Bloomsbury 100. Describing the plot is pointless; the joy is in the telling.

89. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Not really my favorite Twain book – that would be The Prince and the Pauper, a late cut from this list – but Huckleberry Finn is one of the few legitimate contenders for the appellation of The Great American Novel, a comedy, a drama, and a stinging social commentary all rolled up into an adventure story to appeal to the kid in every reader.

88. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carré. A seminal spy novel, but also a character-driven drama, one in which loyalties are uncertain, and so are fates. Impossible to put down, and not laden with all kinds of technobabble to try to distract the reader from a thin or implausible plot.

87. The City and the Mountains, by José Maria de Eça de Queirós. Full review. A beautiful fable by one of Portugal’s greatest novelists.

86. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson. Full review. I would say it blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, but once you do that, it’s fiction, if we’re thinking logically about it. I expected the book to be manic, gonzo even, but I didn’t expect it to be this funny, or this memorable.

85. Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. An extremely easy read, despite the references to some characters by roles (“Mother’s Younger Brother”) rather than names, with rolling, twisting plot lines and text that takes you into another era.

84. Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. Full review. A classic gothic mystery, which also led to Alfred Hitchcock’s only non-honorary Oscar.

83. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy. Overlooked now, probably because of the rather unflattering depiction of a Jewish character, it’s a fast-paced and tense adventure story that deserves to be read by readers who understand its historical context. (And it’s hardly the only book on this list to take its shots at Jews.)

82. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré. Full review. A more involved work than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, involving a sub rosa investigation within MI-5 (Britain’s equivalent to the CIA) to determine which one of a quartet of agents is, in fact, a Soviet mole. George Smiley, a retired MI-5 agent, comes back for what he believes will be one more job, to root out the double agent, except that the candidates are all men he knows, and he finds he can’t trust anyone he thought he knew. It also provided the basis for the fantastic, fast-moving 2011 film of the same name, starring Gary Oldman.

81. The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Full review. A cynical work, surprising for Greene, that offers a severe criticism of the Vietnam War from a worm’s-eye view.

80. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. A novella in the ruined-woman genre, The Awakening takes the story of Anna Karenina, transfers it to New Orleans, and condenses it to focus strictly on the woman, her choices, and the society that boxes her into a corner.

79. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. Full review. Beautifully written tale of good and evil with an uncomfortably high level of violence.

78. Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. An under-read Russian novel, like Goncharov’s Oblomov, Fathers and Sons captures a generational clash that threatens the traditional way of life in Russia, while introducing the then-chic philosophy of nihilism to the broader public.

77. Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe. A straight narrative without breaks, Moll is a picaresque novel and a twisted morality tale that follows a woman of uncertain scruples through her entire life, from her birth in a prison to her life as a prostitute to her eventual rise to wealth.

76. Watership Down, by Richard Adams. I struggled a little bit with this one; it’s a children’s novel, but it’s not. It’s more of a modern epic, a fable about a warren of rabbits who find their home threatened by human development, with one rabbit emerging as a hero through his own wiles and personal growth. The book is so good that it violates two of my core rules, that a book with a map or with a glossary should be avoided.

75. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Criminally overlooked for decades, Eyes has become a classic in the growing canon of African-American literature. Its use of dialect cleared the path for Alice Walker and the grandmaster of the genre, Toni Morrison.

74. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. One of the leading dystopian novels, along with Orwell’s 1984, which is coming up on this list. Huxley’s depiction of a world overrun by technology was both prescient and paranoid, and perhaps rings more true than Orwell’s work given subsequent developments.

73. A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi wa’Thiongo. One of the best and most important novels written by an African author, Grain depicts a Kenyan village divided by the white colonial authorities, who use their power to split and oppress the people whose land they rule.

72. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. Full review. Morrison’s second-best novel, the story of a black family divided through two generations and of one of the sons, Milkman Dead, who is searching for his own identity in the world.

71. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Chandler is half of the pair of leading lights of the hard-boiled detective genre, and The Big Sleep was his most influential work, with sleuth Philip Marlowe as the pensive star, with dry wit and filled glass and a very clear moral compass.

70. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren.Full review. The fictionalized story of the rise and fall of Huey “Kingfish” Long, told almost as the backdrop for the story of the narrator, political crony Jack Burden.

69. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark. Full review. A novel of feminism, of religious ideologies (and fascism!), told with an unusual and effective back-and-forth narrative style and a dose of humor.

68. The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. A scathing indictment of early Hollywood culture and its pernicious effects on those who chase its rainbows.

67. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow. Far more enjoyable than the self-loathing of Herzog, Henderson employs humor and a touch of the absurd to explore the meaning of life and one über-successful yet spiritually unfulfilled man’s search for it in the hinterlands of Africa.

66. The Secret Agent, by Josef Conrad. Conrad is highly esteemed within the literary world for both Nostromo and Lord Jim, but I prefer The Secret Agent for its readability and the presence of some real, bona fide narrative greed. It was adapted, loosely, by Alfred Hitchcock for his 1936 film, Sabotage. (Conrad’s best-known work, Heart of Darkness, is too short for this list.)

65. Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. The first third of an unfinished trilogy, usually sold with the surviving fragments of book two (destroyed by the author about ten days before his suicide), Dead Souls is a dark comedy about serfdom in czarist Russia and the buying and selling of the rights to recently deceased serfs. Its publication and success mark the beginning of the Russian novel and one of the most fertile periods of great literature in any culture.

64. The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Like so many novels on this list, The Leopard is the only novel written by its author. In fact, it was published posthumously by the author’s widow, and eventually became the first best-seller in Italian literature. It tells the story of the decline of a noble family during the unification of Italy, based loosely on the own author’s family history.

63. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Full review. A career butler looks back on his thirty years of service and discovers a host of opportunities lost to a singular pursuit of “dignity.” A sad yet witty novel that draws great emotion from words despite a near-total lack of action.

62. The Small Bachelor, by P.G. Wodehouse. Not part of any series, this one-off book encapsulates the Wodehouse novel’s form perfectly, with two couples kept apart by circumstances, an incompetent artist, an efficiency expert, a policeman bent on becoming a poet, a female pickpocket, and the usual dose of misunderstandings and chases.

61. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Long John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, pieces of eight, fifteen men on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho!

60. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The book is a must-read; the movie is a must-see. It’s probably considered the best hard-boiled detective novel ever written … but there’s one I rate higher.

59. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Full review. Haunting yet beautiful, desolate yet hopeful, Housekeeping shows how much a skilled author can do with just a scarce supply of characters and limited dialogue.

58. 1984, by George Orwell. The ultimate dystopian novel as well as the most scathing attack on totalitarianism in literature, 1984 wins out over Brave New World for me because the polemic is built around a deep study of the main character, Winston Smith. Irrelevant note: The best paper I wrote as a student was a comparison of the way colors and light are described in 1984 and Brave New World. Where Orwell saw “yellow,” Huxley saw “gold,” and so both authors created vastly differing pictures of their dystopian futures.

57. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. The Great American Novel? Not for me, but certainly a great American novel, featuring thinly-veiled versions of Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Kerouac himself, criss-crossing the country, with inventive phrasing and a dialect that defined the Beat Generation and two generations that came after it.

56. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. Full review. A great comic novel about a mostly-normal professor at a small English college who is surrounded by wackos and manages to get himself into increasing quantities of trouble.

55. I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves. A tour de force of historical fiction, told from the perspective of Claudius, the slightly lame and (as we learn) totally insecure man who survived decades of political intrigues and murders to become first Caligula’s consul and later an exalted Emperor of Rome.

54. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. A protest novel and an affectionate portrait of the title character, whose name has sadly been misused as an intra-racial insult by people who do not appear to have read the book.

53. The House of the Spirits. Full review. I’m a sucker for a good magical realism story, and this is probably the next-best example of that style of work from the post-colonial Latin American canon, after a book I have in the top 10. Telling the story of the rise and fall of a great family against the backdrop of the changing political fortunes of Chile – and yes, that was her second cousin once removed whom the CIA arranged to have assassinated – leading into the dark years under Augustus Pinochet.

52. At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien. A silly novel that was meta before meta existed, with a novel within a novel that sees its characters revolt against their fictional author. It also spawned the greatest endorsement in the history of the novel, from Dylan Thomas: “This is just the book to give your sister … if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

51. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. I often vacillate on the question of my favorite Vonnegut novel, so I’ve punted and gone with the experts’ pick. Although I can almost certainly say that this wasn’t my favorite, it is one of his most coherent, and at the same time has enough wackiness and weirdness and Kilgore Trout to be undeniably Vonnegut.

50. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas père. Filled with a chewy nougat center … um, and lots of adventure, with a pair of villains, plenty of treachery, a young man seeking to become the fourth musketeer … and a smooth milk chocolate exterior.

49. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. So simple in style that it reads like a fable meant to be told through the generations, with an unflinching message about the effects of colonialism on Africa’s culture and its people. Its sequel, No Longer at Ease, is also worth your time, even though it runs over similar ground.

48. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. A comic novel in a serious setting, Cuckoo’s Nest always struck me as the dissection of a power struggle between two people and a statement on how leaders, and perhaps governments, attempt to sway the hearts of men. The pickup basketball game remains a personal favorite scene of mine.

47. My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. Never mentioned in discussions of the Great American Novel, but isn’t a tale about immigrant families working to create better lives for themselves and their children an integral part of the American story?

46. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A novel of serious moral questions, of Dostoevsky’s own philosophy blending Christianity with existentialism, of redemption, and most of all of the power of rationalization.

45. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien. One ring to rule them all.

44. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. One of the strangest books on this list, as it starts out as a story of drunken revelry at an English prep school and ends up as a story of a romance torn asunder by theological disagreements (also explored in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair). Think of it as a fictional memoir that intertwines nostalgia for a bygone era of English culture with a re-examination of the narrator’s spiritual emptiness.

43. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Major Major, Nately’s whore, Milo’s cotton schemes … and the flying missions that never end in a serious war with some very un-serious behavior. A sharp satire full of madcap laughs.

42. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The first novel in the Western canon, and the first comic novel, Don Quixote is actually two novels now published as one; Cervantes wrote a sequel in response to the flood of knockoffs and unauthorized sequels that followed the enormous success of the first volume of his work. If you’ve read it, check out Julian Branston’s The Eternal Quest, a funny homage that includes Cervantes and an unnamed “errant knight” as major characters.

41. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. The consummate Gothic romance, with a little magical realism (although it was written a century before the term existed) and a couple of absurd coincidences, still captivates readers and, of course, gave us Thursday Next and The Eyre Affair.

40. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Full review. I didn’t love this book when I first read it; I’m not even sure if I liked it, but in hindsight, I think I was reacting to its unfamiliarity, as Smith’s debut novel ushered in a genre that has since been called “hysterical realism” for its too-real-for-reality perspective. White Teeth tackles multiculturalism, fundamentalism, and bad dentistry, with extensive humor and a nonlinear narrative structure I originally found disjointed but now appreciate more for its ambition and cleverness.

39. The Trial, by Franz Kafka. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

38. The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal. Sort of a French picaresque novel, but with a heavy dose of the realism that characterizes most great French 19th-century literature. The protagonist, Fabrizio del Dongo, is a slightly dim young nobleman who sets off on a Quixotic quest to fight with Napoleon’s army (even though Fabrizio is Italian) and become a hero.

37. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I’m not sure I buy into Vanity Fair‘s oft-quoted review (“The only convincing love story of our century”), but as a study of obsession, arrested development, and rationalization, it’s powerful and cheerfully unapologetic.

36. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. The toughest read on the list, because Faulkner – never an easy read – wrote the first fourth of the book from the perspective of the severely developmentally disabled Benji, who senses all time as now and drifts in his rambling narrative from the past to the present without warning. The four parts describe the decline of a Southern family – and of an entire stratum of Southern society – from four different perspectives. And by the way, the book’s title comes from Macbeth: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”

35. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Full review. Another contender for the Great American Novel, driven by unbelievable prose that brought Cormac McCarthy to my mind. The social criticism aspect of the novel has been dulled by time and history, but the story of a family driven to the edge of ruin still resonates.

34. Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Full review. A bit rich for such a recent book? I won’t deny it, but despite being set in contemporary America, Empire Falls harkens back to the storytelling of American literature from the first half of the last century, following a cast of ne’er-do-wells around a failing Maine mill town as they wait for something good to happen.

33. A Dance to the Music of Time (series), by Anthony Powell. Full review. Powell’s twelve-part sequence follows Nick Jenkins as he moves from boarding school to college to the army to the publishing world, with him serving as our wry tour guide through the follies and life events of a wide-ranging cast of characters.

32. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Full review. A dystopian novel about the simple things in life, like free will.

31. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. A great romance and a commentary on first impressions and, of course, how our pride can get in the way. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and the unctuous William Collins rank among Austen’s best comic creations.

30. Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara. Full review. A Fitzgerald-esque novel about one man’s self-destruction through alcohol as he rebels against the confines of the small town where he and his status-conscious wife live.

29. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is better known for his science fiction – the dystopian masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 just missed the cut for this list – but this old-fashioned gothic horror story uses fear to drive the narrative forward as a sinister circus comes to a small Southern town and two kids find that their curiosity may do more than kill a cat.

28. Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene. Although it doesn’t have the gravitas of Greene’s serious novels (like The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair), Our Man in Havana is the most serious of his “entertainments” that I’ve read. It’s a rich satire about a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited as a British spy and fulfills his duties by sending in blueprints of vacuums and passing them off as new Cuban weapons systems.

27. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens. Full review. Dickens’ first novel and perhaps the first true best-seller in English literature, Pickwick is a classic picaresque novel that showcases the sense of humor Dickens apparently lost somewhere on the way to two of the banes of my high school years, Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities.

26. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Full review. My view on this book has changed dramatically since I read it. I was shocked by the bleak setting and gruesome details of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world, but the raw power of the Man’s love for the Boy and willingness to do anything, brave anything, believe anything to give his son a chance, however slim, at a future … well, if you have a child, you will understand. But I still don’t want to see the cellar scene on film, because I won’t be able to un-see it.

25. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. Full review. Another Pulitzer Prize winner, two years after The Magnificent Ambersons (which I’ve since deleted from the top 100) won, Age combines a love triangle, biting but hilarious commentary, and the stifling social norms of the Gilded Age for one of the greatest American novels ever written.

24. Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Anne Elliott was persuaded by her father and Lady Russell to decline an “unfavorable” match with a poor sailor when she was nineteen. Now twenty-seven and apparently headed for spinsterhood, she learns that her suitor has returned to England a wealthy captain. Austen’s last novel is the tightest and brings the most tension without skimping on the wit provided by, among others, Anne’s complete fathead of a father.

23. Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Dark and violent and completely gripping, Red Harvest was Hammett’s first novel and established the format of the hard-boiled detective novel with its sparse style and unblinking descriptions of bloodshed. It may have been the basis for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as well.

22. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Perhaps the archetype of the brooding male hero, although I kind of felt Heathcliff was just an asshole. It’s a tremendous story of anger, vengeance, and cruelty, unfolding in layers as one might peel back an onion. Also available in a much-beloved semaphore version.

21. A Time to Be Born, by Dawn Powell. I love this book; in fact, I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Dawn Powell, an underrated American writer and novelist whose works were all out of print when she died a pauper in 1965. Even now, her name isn’t known enough and her works remain insufficiently read. Powell’s pen was incisive and her ear for dialogue pitch-perfect, never better than in this un-subtle depiction of TIME magazine founder Henry Luce and his wife Clare Boothe Luce, who is depicted here as the scheming, ruthless Amanda Keeler, whose plans are thrown off course by her naïve childhood friend Vicky Haven.

20. If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino. If you love inventive or just plain weird books, this is for you. The subject of the novel is the reading of a novel. Alternating chapters show a dialogue between the Author and the Reader, interlaced with opening chapters from various fictional novels. Calvino, one of the great fabulists of the twentieth century, takes his inspired silliness to a new level.

19. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s all about the green light. Jay Gatsby’s ill-fated chase of the American Dream, set in the Jazz Age as the automobile begins to make its presence felt on our culture. It ranked first on the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, and second on the Modern Library’s own list.

18. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. A classic English novel of betrayal, The Good Soldier describes a web of infidelities that destroys the lives of five people, with incredible dialogue and the powerful, recurring symbol of the human heart. I’m pretty sure that at $2.50 it’s the cheapest book on this list.

17. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel, by Susanna Clarke. Full review.The fastest thousand pages you’ll ever read – a slow-building story that burns the fantasy genre down and builds it back up into a story of power, corruption, greed, jealousy, and mania.

16. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Like stepping into a lucid dream, and indeed, the protagonist finds the line between reality and dreams blurring while searching for his wife, who has either left him or is being held against her will. You’ll have a hard time putting it down, although there is one scene of graphic torture that was tough to get through.

15. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter , by Carson McCullers. Full review. An amazing achievement of prose and of literary introspection. McCullers looks into the human soul and finds a lot of dusk, if not dark night.

14. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Ignatius J. Reilly with his dyspeptic valve is one of the great hero-antiheroes in American literature as he’s forced to get his lazy ass a job. The book was published posthumously after Toole’s suicide through the persistence of his mother, who is portrayed in an unflattering light in the book, and novelist Walker Percy; twelve years after Toole’s death, Confederacy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

13. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Hated it in high school … okay, that’s not fair, I hated the first twenty pages and rented the movie. I went back for a re-read 16 years later and saw what I’d missed: One of the greatest ironic novels I’ve ever read. It’s bleak in its portraits of English society and its strictures, of human emotions, and of fate, but Hardy (who also was a noted poet) writes beautifully and slips numerous bits of wordplay into the text.

12. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. Collins, a protégé of Charles Dickens, believed that nothing in the novel was more important than the plot, and he wrote perhaps the first suspense novel in this story of mistaken identities, ghost sightings, and the unctuous, nefarious villain Count Fosco. Its use of multiple narrators was revolutionary for the time, and while it has the potential to be confusing, it’s critical for the way Collins wants to unfold the plot before the reader.

11. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. Full review. A short satire with layers and layers of humor, from wordplay to stereotypes turned inside out. The story is thin but readable, although the story is hardly the point. It’s just a joyous, hilarious read, especially if you’ve read any of the classic British novels Gibbons is parodying.

10. Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Full review. A hilarious and absurd satire of the news media that was written in the 1930s but is just as relevant today, as a man who wants no part of the job becomes a foreign correspondent to an African state on the brink of civil war.

9. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding. Fielding made his bones as a novelist by parodying Samuel Richardson’s Pamela with his own work, Shamela, and then moved to a broader satire with Joseph Andrews before stepping out with an entirely original work, the comic picaresque Tom Jones. The story is built around Jones’ romantic pursuit of the daughter of Squire Western, who is constantly trying to pair his daughter up with the villainous son of Jones’ foster parents. Along the way Jones is arrested, accosted, consorts with prostitutes, and runs into no end of conniving, selfish secondary characters.

8. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. The history of Colombia told as the history of one family, with a heavy dose of magical realism and the sweeping feel of an epic despite the focus on individual characters. The Buendía family plays a role in the rise of the fictional town of Macondo until a banana plantation, owned by foreigners, arrives and triggers a lengthy and ultimately complete collapse.

7. Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. The history of the American South told as the history of one family, mostly limited to the decline of the region after the Civil War. Patriarch Thomas Sutpen builds his fortune, but sets the seeds for his family’s downfall through his greed and racism. Told in Faulkner’s usual style of multiple perspectives and winding prose.

6. Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. The best book ever written about Africa was written by a white South African, decrying the country’s apartheid system while offering threads of hope for its future once the system is dismantled. Preacher Stephen Kumalo leaves his rural village to go to the city to help his dissolute sister, Gertrude, and find his son, named Absalom, who went to help Gertrude earlier but never returned and ends up in jail.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The greatest one-hit wonder in literature and perhaps in the arts. The story alone makes it a classic, but Lee’s use of language, combining a Southern dialect with the unmistakable voice of a child, elevates it to its legendary status.

4. Emma, by Jane Austen. Austen herself wrote that she didn’t expect anyone to like her meddling, imperious protagonist, but nearly two hundred years after publication the book remains extremely popular, and the title character is a major reason. Character development was never Austen’s strength, but Emma grows up across the book’s 400-odd pages, with the usual cast of comic-relief supporting characters, including her worrywart father and the garrulous Miss Bates.

3. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. And here we have African-American history, dating back to their emancipation from slavery. Sethe and her daughter Denver are trying to establish a live for themselves as free women when a young woman, known simply as “Beloved,” arrives at the house. Is she the reincarnation of the child Sethe killed to keep her out of slavery? Sethe’s obsession with Beloved opens the door to a host of questions – are African-Americans held down by the weight of their past, or are they complicit in allowing their past to weigh them down? No one writing today does so with prose like Morrison’s or with as much literary depth.

2. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. To the reviewer who called Lolita “the only convincing love story of our century,” I submit Tender is the Night, the story of the gradual, inexorable breakdown of the seemingly perfect marriage between two beautiful people by way of infidelity, drink, and mental illness. If Fitzgerald had to go out early, he could not have gone out on a higher note.

1. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Full review. An absolute masterpiece, banned by the Soviets for decades for its subtle yet severe indictment of communism’s many, many failures. The Devil comes to Moscow and exposes its society for all its vapidity, running into the frustrated author The Master and his faithful girlfriend Margarita, a story intertwined with a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, all stacked with allusions to the Bible and major works of 19th century Russian literature. It is a work of unbridled genius, of acrimonious dissent, and most of all, of hope and faith in humanity.

A Mercy.

Toni Morrison’s most recent novel, A Mercy, is extremely short, somewhere between novel and novella, and feels as wispy as a short story with both scant character development and a frenetic jumping backward and forward in time and across multiple narrators. And Morrison’s use of an apparently invented English dialect made a slow book even harder to read, leading me to the unfortunate conclusion that, as much as I loved her books Beloved and Song of Solomon (both among my 101 favorite novels), she hasn’t produced another novel that I truly enjoyed.

A Mercy is primarily about the young Angolan slave Florens, whose mother effectively gives her up to save her from potential abuse at the hands of her current owner, only to have Florens find new trouble with her next owner, the farmer and eventual trader Jacob Vaark, when she meets the unnamed free black blacksmith and falls into a torrid affair with him. She finds herself scorned by the main slave on the property, Lina, herself once used and rejected by a man; ignored by the distant, space-cadet slave named Sorrow, herself pregnant ny an unknown father; and loved then rebuffed by Jacob’s wife (and, early in the book, widow) Rebekka, who survives a bout of smallpox only to become cold and robotic after adopting the views of a Calvinist sect.

When Morrison is good, she’s superb, with long sagas that illuminate African-American history through broad metaphors and heavy use of symbolism, right down to peculiar character names like the legendary Milkman Dead of Song of Solomon. Those metaphors take time to develop over the course of many chapters and episodes, but A Mercy is so brief – when you fold up all of the narratives, very little time passes in the book – that there’s virtually no development of metaphor or character, with the only significant change affecting Rebekkah, who moves from one extreme (compassionate, freethinking, mostly independent-minded housewife-farmer) to another after losing her husband and nearly losing her own life.

White folk generally don’t come off well in Morrison’s books – when slavery is a recurrent theme, it’s hard to paint us Caucasians as anything but the enemy – but in A Mercy, the primary villain is not white skin but the Y chromosome. Man is faithless and violent and a serial user, using the various women in the book for sex and labor and little else. There is no love between man and woman in this book; the only love is that of a mother for her child, and even that goes awry more often than not. I have no inherent objection to a book with the theme of the oppression of women by men throughout the history of civilization, but to a book that attempts to tell that story without giving me a male character who exists in as many as two dimensions.

Morrison’s two magnum opi – Beloved is $9 at that amazon link above, and I doubt you could find a better novel for under $10 new right now – are among the towering achievements not just in women’s literature or African-American literature, but in literature, period, the sort of complex, emotional works that speak to multiple fundamental aspects of our existence with poetic prose, layered meanings, and narrative greed. Jazz and Sula hinted at that greatness, but in general I’ve found the rest of Morrison’s bibliography to fall sadly short. Perhaps those two great works were all that Morrison had in her. It’s more than most authors could produce in a lifetime.

Next up: So I’m a bit behind here – just tore through Kazuo Ishiguro’s marvelous debut novel A Pale View of Hills inside of 24 hours, and am already knee-deep in Benjamin Wallace’s nonfiction thriller The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.

Tar Baby.

I’ve filed two pieces from the AFL so far, one on Sunday and one on Thursday. Jason Grey also wrote a piece on Friday; we saw Brothers pitch again on Saturday and his stuff was down about 2 miles an hour.

You can’t spoil a child. Love and good food never spoiled nobody.

In his New York Times review of Toni Morrison’s 1981 novel Tar Baby, John Irving referred to it as “her most ambitious book” to that point. If true, I think Morrison missed the mark for which she was aiming, but I also think Irving’s comment sells short her previous novel, Song of Solomon, which put her on the literary map after her first two novels found little commercial success.

Morrison’s two best novels – Song of Solomon and 1987’s masterwork Beloved – deal with enormous themes of African-American history and culture, replete with symbolism that took compelling stories with magical realism and elevated them to magnum opi that explored the black experience in the United States, from the present day all the way back to our shameful history of slavery. Compared to those two novels, Tar Baby is an inchoate exposition with less structure and a jumbled storyline that crystallizes around its two central characters in the final third, only to end with one of the most ambigious conclusions I’ve ever seen.

Jadine, the closest thing Tar Baby has to a central character, is a light-skinned African-American woman who was raised by her aunt and uncle on the Caribbean island of Dominique (Dominica) on the estate of the wealthy, eccentric white man Valerian Street and his beautiful but aloof wife Margaret. Jadine, now a successful model who spends much of her time in Paris and New York, finds her world turned upside down when a fugitive deckhand, a black man named Son, is found hiding in Margaret Street’s closet, an arrival that creates battle lines not between white and black but between wealth and poverty, and between old black and new black. These battle lines, more than the characters or the torrid romance that forms between Jadine and Son, define the novel.

The most interesting division forms between Son and the various black characters in the book – Jadine, her aunt Ondine and uncle Sydney, and locals on Dominique who are almost invisible not just to the Streets but even to Sydney and Ondine. (One regular helper from outside the house is often fired, but continues to come under a new name because the Streets don’t know the difference.) Son represents something atavistic to Jadine and her aunt and uncle, a throwback to the time of overt social and economic repression; Sydney and Ondine refer to him as a “swamp n—–r,” ostensibly a comment on his initial appearance in Margaret’s closet, but more likely a reflection of their own discomfort at seeing their own racial past incarnate before their eyes. Jadine finds herself attracted to Son and drawn into an affair with him that spans from Dominique to New York, where Son finds himself alienated and disgusted by the way African-Americans live with and yet unequal to whites, to Son’s poor hometown of Eloe, a Florida backwater where Jadine is appalled and terrified by the ambition-less, self-satisfied poverty:

You stay in that medieval slave basket if you want to. You will stay there by yourself. Don’t ask me to do it with you. I won’t. There is nothing any of us can do about the past but make our own lives better, that’s all I’ve been trying to help you do. That is the only revenge, for us to get over. Way over. But no, you want to talk about white babies; you don’t know how to forget the past and do better.

Jadine and Son’s affair begins as the marriage between Valerian and Margaret frays under the revelation of a three-decades-old secret, one shocking and yet inconsequential in the book’s larger plot, as the two white characters are mostly absent from the remainder of the book. Morrison’s characterization is normally first-rate, but the Streets are rendered in two or two and a half dimensions and stand more as props for her various black characters than as fully-realized individuals of their own.

Margaret is waiting for her son, Michael, to bring salvation or exoneration when he comes for Christmas, but he never arrives and the plot strand frays and disappears, which stands in for the main problem with Tar Baby as a novel: Nothing is resolved at the end of the book, and what conclusion Morrison does offer us is ambiguous at best.

By and large, Morrison doesn’t take sides in the Jadine/Son conflict; if anything she seems to offer criticisms of both the complete rejection of the past and of the willingness to repeat it. That said, Jadine’s love of a sealskin coat read to me like a condemnation of her embrace of materialism. She’s rejecting her own skin and replacing it with something natural yet artificial and inhuman, and the manufacture of such a coat through violence against nature ties into the conflict between modernity and nature, another of the themes Morrison explores in the book.

If you haven’t read any Toni Morrison, Tar Baby, isn’t the place to start; I’d send you to Beloved (one of the ten best novels I’ve ever read), then Song of Solomon, and then either Tar Baby or Jazz. Those first two novels are must reads for anyone interested in American literature, but Tar Baby doesn’t measure up to them in scope or story.

Next up: Robert Olen Butler’s short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.


I posted a blog entry on Matt Harrison, Aaron Crow, and two other pitchers yesterday, and my latest draft blog entry is on Christian Colon and Gary Brown; I was going to see Greg Peavey today but was rained out. I’m tentatively scheduled to be on ESPNEWS on Monday in the 2 pm hour but it’s not confirmed.

Toni Morrison’s Jazz is the second part of what she later termed a trilogy that began with Beloved, one of my favorite novels by any author, #5 on my ranking of my favorite novels, and while it’s not as strong as its predecessor it’s still an above-average novel that explores the post-slavery experience while using a very different plot and narrative style.

Jazz is built around the same core theme as Beloved – the weight of history on African-Americans, and how much responsibility they bear for how that history has affected them. The novel opens with the story of how Joe Trace killed his young mistress, after which his slightly crazy wife Violet becomes unhinged and attempts to mutilate the girl’s corpse at the funeral. From there, Morrison turns the clock back in fits and starts, with abrupt changes in style and narrator that apparently are an attempt to mimic jazz in prose form, in a way that uses Joe’s mistress, Dorcas*, as a symbol for vices that hold the African-American community back while also explaining the appeal of those vices by rooting her own bad behavior in the violent deaths of her parents. Joe and Violet come from similarly complex backgrounds that explain their actions and have them standing in for their genders or for classes of African-Americans in the fifty years after slavery had ended but freedom was still an elusive goal, as shown in one of the most powerful lines in the book: “I don’t want to be a free nigger; I want to be a free man.”

*I took the name as ironic, as Dorcas is the name of a dressmaker in the Bible, while Morrison’s Dorcas is raised by an aunt who mends clothes. Dorcas herself doesn’t make or repair clothing, but she was mended by her aunt.

Jazz‘s second theme, the core romance between Joe and Violet, wasn’t evident to me until the final section of the book, and I imagine I’d interpret many of the earlier sections differently if I reread it. (And that’s why I’m telling you about it.) The tragedy that lies at the heart of the plot is nowhere near as simple as it first appears: Joe has killed his mistress but didn’t face charges, while Violet seems to have lost her mind as a result of the betrayal and crime. While I wouldn’t call the book’s ending an absolution for either of them, Morrison creates enough moral ambiguity as she unfurls the story of Joe’s upbringing and the affair that she creates a path for the two of them to emerge as a stronger couple once a small chance encounter gives them a measure of closure. There’s a whiff of blaming-the-victim in the back story, but I had to wonder if that was part of Morrison’s point – that our actions, especially selfish ones, can have dangerous consequences. And maybe I just like the idea of a couple surviving tragedies personal and societal and making use of a somewhat undeserved second chance.

Beloved remains, for me, the better and more powerful novel, but Morrison opened up her style a little to allow for more wordplay and humor, which wouldn’t have been appropriate in the earlier novel’s darker plot. When one fringe (white) character’s father learns that his daughter has become pregnant through an affair with a black man, he is displeased, and even in the middle of a slow-motion train wreck Morrison still slips in a little wit:

His left hand patted around the air searching for something: a shot of whiskey, his pipe, a whip, a shotgun, the Democratic platform, his heart – Vera Louise never knew.

But a major part of why I love Morrison is the way she handles words like an expert chef handles his ingredients, making the finished product more than the sum of its parts. If Morrison wasn’t slyly referring to herself in this line about people in a long march who came from different parts of the country, she inadvertently described her own style in the process:

… and who, when they spoke, regardless of the accent, treated language like the same intricate, malleable toy designed for their play.

If you haven’t read Beloved, you should start there, but Jazz is worth your time once you’ve tackled that book and perhaps Song of Solomon as well.

Next up: Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning debut novel, The White Tiger.

The Known World.

Edward Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World combines techniques or themes from some seriously great novels of the last fifty years, including Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a faux-historical writing style I’ve seen before but whose origin I can’t place. Unfortunately, it ended up less satisfying than the great novels it emulates, so while a solid novel in its own right, it suffers from the inevitable comparisons the reader will make while moving through the book.

The center of the book is the estate of the slaveowner Henry Townsend, a black man who became free around age 20 but who chose to purchase slaves for himself and build his fortune on the backs of members of his own race. Townsend dies at the beginning of the novel, although we see large chunks of his life through flashbacks, and the bulk of the plot revolves around the gradual decaying of the tight order of things – the business operations and the formal and informal hierarchies – of the tiny empire he’s built on that estate. The wide cast of characters includes slaves, freed blacks, and whites whose lives intersected with the Townsends, often with disastrous results.

While whites are largely depicted as forces of evil in the book, whether directly bringing evil on the black characters or simply by opening the door for ill fortunate, Jones targets black slaveowners and even highlights black slaves who exercised formal or informal authority over others for their moral culpability in the suffering of slaves. Using a black slaveowner and his family at the story’s center allows him to remove the facile white-bad-black-good dichotomy that could obscure the greater themes of morality he’s trying to explore, and the resulting moral ambiguity suffuses the novel, such as the question of whether a “fair” slaveowner is any better than a cruel one, or what the value of a law is when men charged with enforcing it fail to do so or even openly flout it. Jones mentions other outrages of the time like anti-miscegenation laws, but brushes past them because they’re not worth his time – his interest, beyond just telling a story, seems to lie in exploring situations that lack right or obvious answers, and thus he ignores those where modern sensibilities will lead all readers to the same horror or repulsion.

Where The Known World fell a little short for me was in narrative greed – it’s obvious from the start that the plantation will crumble without Henry Townsend, and it was evident to me early in the book that Caldonia, his widow, wasn’t up to the task of managing it, which presaged, at a high level, what was going to happen with the slaves and the estate. The interest of the plot, for me, was largely in finding out the fates of the various central characters, particularly the slaves, although Henry’s parents do figure into the last major plot strand, one that I thought had a strong symbolic significance and was the only area where Jones took square aim at whites, even non-slaveowners, for their role in the great cultural tragedy of slavery. And Jones remains true to life – some characters find positive, if not actually happy, endings, while others meet tragic ends and some just end up in the great grey middle.

The faux-historical trick I mentioned in the intro merits a mention. Jones intersperses fake historical facts, written in the dry manner of a history text or even a census register, throughout the book, whether to tell us the fate of a minor character or to give shape or color to a place or a county or a period of time. I found it very effective, and it gave the book the feel of a longer one because of its level of detail, without requiring the time an 800-page book demands.

Next up: Since finishing this, I read Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, the last published Christie novel, a solid but unspectacular Miss Marple novel that, as always, had me second-guessing my instincts (which turned out to be right, although I can hardly take credit after doubting myself so heavily) after I thought I’d picked out the culprit. After finishing that this morning, I’ve started Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year before Jones won with The Known World.