“Serious literature” is often a downer, as authors confront the challenges, disappointments and limitations of life through a sad and tragic lens.
Our newest Top Ten contributor, Daniel Wallace, writes about serious things—love and loss, remorse and missed opportunities—but with a big-hearted, often whimsical perspective that adds rich layers and emotional complexity to his tales.
His debut novel, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998), describes a son’s quest to learn about his dying father, But Dad, who has always sailed through life on the back shaggy dog humor, refuses to cooperate, offering jokes instead of disclosure. Thus, the sad and serious theme is established: a father and son who cannot connect because of the emotional limits of traditional masculinity. And Wallace delivers that story—with a wonderful twist. Unable to pierce his father’s veneer, the son does the next best thing, as James Polk wrote in his New York Times review:
Within his own imagining, he makes Edward into a myth, a quietly heroic figure standing astride the lives of all who know him. Even to those who merely brush against him in passing he becomes a benevolent colossus—a truly Big Fish. In his son's construction, the father's story becomes Homeric. In one episode, a catfish as big as a man drags him through a community of dead souls at the bottom of a lake. … He tames a giant “as tall as any two men, as wide as any three and as strong as any ten.” He performs tasks that, although not exactly Herculean, have perhaps more resonance in the modern world—cleaning out a veterinarian's kennels, selling a girdle to an impossible customer at a department store, rescuing a child from the jaws of a massive dog—because he knows he must “perform many great labors before he assumed his rightful place.''
Big Fish brought instant success to the Alabama native – it was made into a Tim Burton film, starring Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor, and a Broadway play. In the years since he has created an impressive body of work that is playful and poignant, informed as much by tall tales as truth-telling. They include Ray in Reverse (2000), which is narrated by a man in heaven who tells the story of his life, starting at the end; The Watermelon King (2003), Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician (2007), The Kings and Queens of Roam (2013), and Extraordinary Adventures (2017) which is about a lonely man whose life gets turned upside down when he wins a vacation getaway. Reviewing that book in the New York Times, Ann Leary observed:
Daniel Wallace is one of those rare, wonderful writers who make it look easy. You find yourself chortling and sometimes laughing aloud as you breeze through his novels, which makes it possible to overlook the artistry and expertise that render his characters so vivid and his plots so engaging. It’s not so much what his characters experience but how they experience their world that makes them so utterly relatable and unforgettable.
Wallace is also an artist who illustrated his children’s book, The Cat’s Pajamas (2014). His stories have been recognized in Best American Short Stories. In 2019 he won the Harper Lee Award, which recognizes a living, nationally recognized Alabama writer who has made a significant lifelong contribution to Alabama letters.
- Read an excerpt from Extraordinary Adventures
- Listen to a 2019 interview.
- Visit his official website.
Wallace’s list adds one new title to TopTenLand, The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino. It’s also his top pick, which means it joins our list of “One-Hit Wonders”—works an author considered the greatest of all-time which no one else selected. With “Baron,” their ranks now stand at 29.
Wallace also included a brief note atop his list, which reads:
Daniel Wallace’s Top Ten List
I HAVE been completely beside myself with this list. For a couple of reasons: the first is that I haven’t read all the books in the world I should have. I look at Mailer’s list and wonder why I ever thought I could be a writer. He did REAL TIME. Finally I decided to list those books that were great to me and for me: the books that made me the reader and writer that I am, for better or worse. Or the books that without which I would be an even worse writer than I turned out to be.
1. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (1957).
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
3. Light in August by William Faulkner (1932).
4. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961).
5. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881).
6. Stories of John Cheever (1912–82).
7. Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64).
8. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735).
9. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
10. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980).