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A.M. Homes's Top Ten List
1. The Birthday Party (1958) and The Homecoming (1965) by Harold Pinter. The Nobel Prize–winning master of menacing understatement subtly links exfoliating, abstract power struggles with banal domestic situations in two of his finest plays. The interrogation and abduction of a helpless (and perhaps guiltless) tenant makes The Birthday Party simultaneously celebrated as an ironic mockery of the phenomena of survival and continuity. In The Homecoming, a philosophy professor’s return to the domicile he and his wife share with his male relatives becomes a struggle for sexual dominance from which the lone woman emerges triumphant. The result is opaque, disturbing, enthralling drama.
2. The Zoo Story (1958), The American Dream (1961), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), three plays by Edward Albee. Albee is American dramaturgy’s master of black comedy and social satire. In The American Dream he lambasts that concept in a one-act farce featuring an over-the-top dysfunctional family and a murder. In The Zoo Story, a psychotic loner cannily provokes a complacent bourgeois into killing him. In the Pulitzer Prize–winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an older couple savage each other and their unsuspecting guests at the dinner party from hell, until the climactic revelation of the secret that binds them together. Albee’s plays are less performances than ritual flayings, stripping away all pretense and artificiality in family and social life to lay bare the bleeding vitals.
3. Bullet Park by John Cheever (1967). Happily married with one child, Eliot Nailles is a chemist working to make better mouthwash. Paul Hammer is a Yale graduate and aimless drifter who moves to Nailles’s leafy suburb of Bullet Park. There he plans to take revenge on the bourgeoisie —by murdering Nailles’s son.
4. Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates (1975). A meticulous, relentless account of failure and depression, this mordant novel examines the American pursuit of success in accents that echo Fitzgerald and O’Hara. Its protagonist, John Wilder, is a prototypical Yates underachiever: an advertising salesman misled by delusions of an artistic career (as a movie producer) and hampered by inherited weaknesses, a hopeful yet doomed marriage made during the glamorous Kennedy era, and a series of breakdowns that reveal his irreversible ordinariness. Not quite tragedy, but memorable indeed for its uncompromising, compassionate bleakness.
5. Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown (1965). Fierce, unsparing language and plenty of street jive power this autobiographical novel recounting Brown’s early life as a drug dealer, hustler, and thief amid the numbers runners, prostitutes, cops, and hardworking parents of Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. His portrait of inner-city blight rises to high tragedy as Brown paints it against the hopes of Southern blacks who came north for the promise of a better life.
6. A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch (1961). Infused with Freudian theories —especially about male sexuality —and Jungian archetypes, this novel centers on a man who must search his soul and his mind after his wife leaves him for her psychoanalyst. With often dark, deadpan humor, Murdoch uses deception, adultery, and sex to address morality and responsibility, the nature of reality, and the power of the unconscious.
7. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948). Dennis Barlow is an English poet working at a Hollywood pet cemetery. Arranging a friend’s funeral, he falls for a cosmetician at the posh Whispering Glades, a paradise for the human deceased, or Loved Ones. The funeral business and its ridiculous jargon (survivors of Loved Ones are Waiting Ones; bodies are viewed in the Slumber Room) provide lively “meat” (as employees privately refer to corpses) for Waugh to skewer.
8. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown (1964). If Kafka had watched a lot of children’s cartoons, this is the book he might have written. Young Stanley Lambchop wakes up one morning flat as a pancake, another victim of a falling bulletin board. He enjoys his flatness at first —sliding into envelopes, slipping through metal grates, foiling a gang of art thieves —but then others begin to mock him. The book’s imagination and deadpan humor is enhanced by Tomi Ungerer’s charming and very 1960s-looking illustrations.
9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). In the peak heat of a St. Petersburg summer, an erstwhile university student, Raskolnikov, commits literature’s most famous fictional crime, bludgeoning a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. What follows is a psychological chess match between Raskolnikov and a wily detective that moves toward a form of redemption for our antihero. Relentlessly philosophical and psychological, Crime and Punishment tackles freedom and strength, suffering and madness, illness and fate, and the pressures of the modern urban world on the soul, while asking if “great men” have license to forge their own moral codes.
10. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.