Norwood by Charles Portis (1966). The comic conversation and surreal adventure that distinguish Portis’s fiction shine in this first novel about Norwood Pratt, a war hero with country music dreams who’s stuck in a small Texas town. Seeking escape, Norwood decides to find an old Marine buddy who owes him seventy dollars.

Oedipus trilogy

Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles (496–406 b.c.e.). Like an existential sadist, Sophocles explores the tragic complexities of fate by hurling his characters into situations in which they are simultaneously guilty and innocent, forced to choose between right and right or wrong and wrong—or some painfully imprecise combination of the two.

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008). Carolyn Leavitt writes: “Prickly Maine denizen Olive Kittridge presides over these stories, and she’s as awful as she is appealing.  The novel unspools  thirty years of relationships,  illuminating small town life in Maine and the pain, panic and yearning of its people.

On the Road

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957). The ur-novel of the Beat generation, Kerouac mythologizes an America that is always just over the next hill or waiting in the next bar, the next town, the next bottle, or a lover’s bed, and “the mad ones” who chase such visions.