A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.
10. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
McMurtry himself once dismissed the Pulitzer he won for this book, saying it was a newspaperman’s award. Nevertheless, this book is an American classic—a western, a journey narrative, a coming-of-age saga, an adventure story, a doomed romance, and more.
The characters are indelibly stamped on the imaginations of everyone who has read the book—Gus McCrae, the jokester with the heart as big as Montana. Woodrow Call, the gruff ex-lawman who never met a task he couldn’t finish before dinner. Newt, the son of a dead whore whose absent father might not be so absent after all. Jake Spoon, cardsharp and outlaw whose careless words and actions haunt all the characters. Deets, the African-American scout and the real heart of the Hat Creek Outfit. Laurie, the whore who follows Jake Spoon into the wilderness, her heart set on San Francisco. And Clara, former lover of both Gus and Jake, whose resentment of Woodrow Call runs almost as deep as her love for horses—and Gus.
As Call, Gus, and company drive a herd of mostly stolen cattle from the U.S.-Mexico border to Montana, some characters live. Some die. Some turn outlaw; some find torture and pain where others find love. The journey thrills us, wounds us, and never lets us forget the personal price of ambition.
The made-for-TV film starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones is almost as good as the book. If you’ve seen it but haven’t delved into McMurtry’s doorstop of a novel, give it a go.
Other texts that would work well: Terms of Endearment; The Last Picture Show; Texasville.
9. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor.
Flannery O’Connor, an American novelist and master of the short story, once said, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Keep that in mind if you are an O’Connor newbie.
And while you’re at it, be on the lookout for one of the sharpest, most incisive senses of humor in the history of letters. Today, humor that makes you uncomfortable while you laugh, that makes you fear going to hell because you’re laughing, is all the rage; see Family Guy for exhibit A. O’Connor’s humor is much more focused, though, and it has an edge all its own.
Many of the tales have been widely anthologized—“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the tale of a family trip that takes a left turn into terror; “Good Country People,” a fractured romance that deconstructs the insipid and egotistical way we read other people; “Revelation,” one of the best stories about a seemingly mundane day you’ll ever read; and more.
I’ve chosen the collected tales here, rather than one of the individual collections, because it will allow you to immerse yourself in the deep waters of a great southern writer, a great American voice, a keen observer of humanity’s darkness and hilarity.
Other texts that would work well: any of the individual collections, or her strange artifact of a novel, Wise Blood.
A very different writer than O’Connor, Hemingway is no less a driving force of American fiction in the 20th century. A Nobel prize winner who wrote according to his own “iceberg theory”—that most of what happens in a story goes on beneath the surface of the text—Hemingway looms large for anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Any number of book-length texts could have served here, but for me, Hemingway is never better than when he’s working in short fiction. In fact, many of these stories could serve as an example of how to work with minimalist form for maximum effect.
Read the stories in order if you want. If not, maybe start with the Nick Adams stories, the most famous of which is probably “Big Two-Hearted River.” Move on to the war tales, including “A Soldier’s Home.” Delve into the existential ambiguity of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
Two of my favorite Hemingway works are also among the longest stories. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” details the last moments in a couple’s marriage. As a hunting trip grows in intensity, so does the bitterness between Macomber and his wife. You’ll see the end coming, but it still feels like a surprise. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is also about an ending, but it also resonates deeply with my own anxiety about my writing, about time, and about the way life passes by much more quickly than you could imagine. Tragedies and missed opportunities compound until you feel as overwhelmed by them as our protagonist.
“A Very Short Story” condenses the deepest of emotions into just a couple of pages. Flash fiction writers could do much worse than study that story.
“The Light of the World”; “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”; the devastating “Hills like White Elephants”—Hemingway’s short fiction is truly a treasure chest of beauty and pain. Open it up and see what you can find.
Other texts that would work well: The Sun Also Rises; To Have and Have Not; A Farewell to Arms; The Old Man and the Sea.
7. The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds.
Years ago, I discovered this book in Wal-Mart, of all places. Its jacket described a novel set in a religious separatist community. The church’s name? “The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind.” I could not resist. I bought it, took it home, and opened it. I’ve been in love with it ever since.
The novel traces the story of Ninah, a teenage girl growing up in a highly fundamentalist religion. Her Grandpa is the church’s preacher and its patriarch. He makes the rules—and the judgments.
Of course, part of her upbringing entails a blanket denial of sexuality for purposes other than procreation within a marriage. So when she and her prayer partner, James, realize that their bodies are responding in a heady, ecstatic way to each other’s presence, they mistake their burgeoning sexuality for religious fervor. And, they reason, how can something that makes them feel the presence of Jesus be wrong?
Soon enough, Ninah is pregnant, and the community is in an uproar. As Ninah and her grandmother butt heads with Grandpa, as James struggles with his deep sense of guilt, as Grandpa debates what to do with the baby, the emotional tension builds. Throughout it all, Ninah’s voice is always genuine, always compelling.
It also has perhaps the funniest version of the Rapture that I have ever read. No kidding.
A book that wrestles with serious questions about religion, sex, family, and stories themselves, The Rapture of Canaan will leave you, well, rapturous. I have read it many times. I wrote about it in my dissertation. I have taught it to eager students that have loved every page. Even if Sheri Reynolds had never written anything else, this book stands as a fine contribution to literature.
Other texts that would work well: Bitterroot Landing; The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb.
6. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
One of best novels about the intricacies of race relations in the 20th century, which is only one of its many subjects, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is also one of the best works from one of America’s best writers. A Nobel Prize winner, Morrison has produced plenty of work about race, gender, class, and family. Song of Solomon marries all these topical concerns with a truly heart-rending story about one man’s growth.
Milkman Dead (the story of his name is alone worth the price of admission) is born in the shadow of a white hospital that refuses to treat his mother. His birth coincides with the death of a man who leaps from the building, certain that he can fly.
Milkman is fascinated with flight for the rest of his life. His own flight—the figurative one he undertakes as he seeks his family’s origins and the literal one he might well be taking in the possibly magic-realist ending—helps to structure the novel.
Along the way, Milkman must navigate the troubled relationship between his parents. His father, the unyielding Macon Dead, looms large in Milkman’s life. His mother—well, let’s just say that Milkman’s name stems from a rather unusual relationship with her. He often finds himself in conflict with his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene.
Even more conflicted is his relationship with his Aunt Hagar, her daughter Reba, and Reba’s daughter Hagar. These three women live apart from the rest of their family, and in a very nontraditional way. Milkman is drawn to them. They fascinate him; they repulse him. Milkman’s romance with Hagar, and its devastating termination, make for some of the novel’s best passages.
Milkman is also very much a part of the racial tensions of his time. His best friend, Guitar, eventually becomes a member of the Seven Days, a shadow organization bent on evening the tally of racial violence, no matter who must pay their price. As Milkman and Guitar take very different paths, Morrison explores a topic no less important than how young black men might respond to the virulent racism of their country.
An important book that wrestles with national issues even as it personalizes them, Song of Solomon rewards repeated readings as much as it does the very first one. When my daughter Shauna was young, I gave her a copy and told her to put it on her shelf. “It might be a little intense for you right now,” I said, thinking of the sexual and violent passages. “But when you’re older, you’ll appreciate it.” I don’t know if she ever read it, but you should. And often.
Other texts that would work well: The Bluest Eye; Beloved; Sula; Tar Baby; Paradise; Jazz.
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