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Ethan Canin's Top Ten List
1. The stories of John Cheever (1912–82). Seemingly confined to recording the self-inflations and petty hypocrisies of suburban WASPs, Cheever’s short fiction actually redefined the story form, mixing minimalism and myth to create uniquely American tragicomedy. A master of the ambiguous ending, Cheever could also be direct: In “The Swimmer,” a man dreams of his family as he blithely “swims” home through his neighbors’ backyard pools, only to collapse at the door of his empty, locked house.
2. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864). Aloof, unhappy, and tortured by his own “hyperconsciousness,” Dostoevsky’s narrator prefers to remain underground, away from normal life, because at least there he can be free. When he forces himself to dine with three schoolfellows, their carefree laughter and drinking sends him “into a fury.” Afterward, he is seemingly moved by the plight of a young prostitute. But neither pity nor love is re deeming in this story whose narrator asks: “Which is better —cheap happiness or exalted suffering?” Dostoevsky’s preference is clear.
3. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919). A collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a town whose physical isolation mirrors their psychological distance. With compassion and sadness, Anderson evokes small-town life and thought through a wide range of characters who are not visited by any tragedies save their own inability to forge a bit of happiness in their lives of quiet desperation.
4. The stories of Alice Munro (1931– ). A master of the small epiphany, the moment of clarity, Alice Munro writes of men and women who struggle to reconcile the lives they have made with their sometimes confused longings. Largely set in urban and rural Canada, Munro’s stories feature characters whose inner lives gradually peel away to reveal themselves in all their richness and complexity. Munro’s plots do not forge ahead in a linear fashion, but loop and meander and take their time getting where they need to go, slowly revealing their characters and revealing what lies behind the choices they have made.
5. The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor (1985). Set in the South of the 1920s and 1930s, the genteel surfaces of Taylor’s stories cloak the unspoken tensions and the rigors of class and economics. Taylor creates stories that are novelistic in their pacing as he digresses and speculates on alternative possibilities to the narrative at hand. Often told by men reflecting on the past, these stories suggest that time does not slay mores and ideas but reinvents them.
6. Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow (1956). Bellow’s characters often stumble along comic paths toward equilibrium, and none of the Nobel laureate’s creations is more rollicking than Eugene Henderson. A multimillionaire cut loose in Africa, Henderson is a portrait of human striving, with his battle cry: “I want, I want, I want.” We follow him off the beaten tourist path, watching him blow up a cistern filled with frogs, make friends with a lioness, and be crowned the Rain King after he seems to end a long drought. As always with Bellow, comedy is the handmaiden of an ultimate optimism. “I am a true adorer of life,” Henderson says, “and if I can’t reach as high as the face of it, I plant my kiss somewhere lower down.”
7. American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997). Seymour “Swede” Levov embodies the American success story: a Jewish boy who became a football hero, a conscientious businessman, a good citizen. Then his alienated daughter commits an atrocious political crime and his idyllic world is blown apart by the same radical energies assaulting American innocence during the 1960s. Conflicting perspectives on its protagonist’s vulnerable combination of decency, righteousness, and naiveté make this Pulitzer Prizenovel both sweetly nostalgic and extremely angry.
8. At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen (1965). Two Americans try to expand white culture in the jungles of Peru: a Christian missionary hopes to “civilize” the local tribes, and a mercenary plans to remove the locals through terror. In alternating chapters, Mathiessen chronicles their exploits, motives, and changing sense of self (the mercenary eventually goes native, with deadly results) in this complex story of good and evil and missionary zeal, of the quest for personal identity, and of the danger of imposing one culture on another.
9. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (1992). Unsworth explores the “ancient urge” to “command attention, dominate one’s fellows” in this Booker Prize–winning novel that offers a gripping, panoramic view of the slave trade during the eighteenth century. Following a mutiny aboard a slave vessel and the creation of a utopian community in Florida, Unsworth portrays the fight against greed, disease, and humanity’s inhumanity. In this novel of two cousins who have opposing dreams, Unsworth faces the heights and depths of human nature.
10. Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) by Evan S. Connell. This his and hers pairing, like twinned guest towels, reveals dirty fingerprints on the underside of a tidy looking 1930s Midwestern, middle-class marriage. Through fragments of conversations, overheard remarks, and wry observations, Connell slices into the Bridges’ relationship, first revealing Mrs. Bridge’s evaporation into suburban ennui, then exposing Mr. Bridge’s increasing distance and disdain. The novels, set a decade apart, reveal two dimensions of the troubled family, which includes three children.