Author Photo And Bio
1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1962). After flying forty-eight missions, Yossarian, a bomber pilot in World War II, is going crazy trying to find an excuse to be grounded. But the military has a catch, Catch 22, which states, (a) a sane man must fight, unless (b) he can prove he is insane, in which case (a) must apply —for what sane person doesn’t want to avoid fighting? This novel is a congery of appallingly funny, logical, logistical, and mortal horrors. It defined the cultural moment of the 1960s, when black humor became America’s pop idiom.
2. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Hemingway proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from . . . ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” But one can read it simply as a straightforward adventure story in which two comrades of conve nience, the parentally abused rascal Huck and fugitive slave Jim, escape the laws and conventions of society on a raft trip down the Mississippi. Alternatively, it’s a subversive satire in which Twain uses the only superficially naïve Huck to comment bitingly on the evils of racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and capitalist greed he observes in a host of other largely unsympathetic characters. Huck’s climactic decision to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” rather than submit to the starched standards of “civilization” reflects a uniquely American strain of individualism and nonconformity stretching from Daniel Boone to Easy Rider.
3. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951). After being dismissed from another prep school, Holden Caulfield —whose slangy, intimate narration defines this novel —has a series of misadventures in Manhattan before going home for Christmas. Haunted by the death of brother Allie, he wants what he cannot have —to snare the elusive Jane Gallagher, to run away with his sister Phoebe, to “catch” innocent youths before they fall into the “phony” world of adults. A timeless voice of adolescent rage and assurance, Holden may rank highest in the pantheon of antiestablishment heroes.
4. The Comedians by Graham Greene (1966). The poverty and desperation of Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haitian dictatorship inform this cynical tale of failed individuals trying to hustle something from a failed state. The comedians —who hide their true identities behind masks —include Mr. Brown, a failed art swindler and now inheritor of a waning imperial hotel, Mr. Jones, a con man, and the oblivious Mr. Smith, who dreams of establishing a vegetarian center on the troubled island. As Greene contrasts these schemers with men combating Duvalier, he delivers a gripping geopolitical novel that packs a moral punch.
5. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969). Part science fiction, part war story, this is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former World War II prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself. Abducted by visitors from the planet Trafalmadore, Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is thus able to revisit key points in his life and even his future. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, this muscular satire reveals the absurdity and brutality of modern war.
6. Stories of Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Kafka’s fictions express existential alienation, but without the self-pity or blame; there’s great humor amidst the angst. Despite his radical modernism, echoes of Talmudic and European folk traditions and Kafka’s own formal High German prose style lend his fables all the timelessness of nightmare. His stories range from the slightest fragments, parables, and epigrams to the novella-length classic, The Metamorphosis. Featuring anthropomorphic beasts as well as magisterial paradoxes of “the Law,” Kafka’s inventive tales are a treasure-house of the neurotic and prophetic.
7. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939). This is the first novel featuring hard-boiled Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe, a tough guy with a fast gun and a quick wit. Noting that he “was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” Marlowe goes to work for a dying L.A. oil tycoon whose two lusty daughters have fallen prey to an array of drug dealers, pornographers, and bootleggers intent on separating the old man from his money.
8. Ninety-two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane (1973). McGuane has always been fascinated by people who seek a truer life by living on the edge. Here he tells the story of a refugee from America’s consumer society who returns to Key West, where he lives in an old airplane fuselage and tries to realize his dream of becoming a skiff guide in the tropical waters. But that hope makes him seem threatening to a rival guide, who will kill to protect his turf.
9. Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64). Full of violence, mordant comedy, and a fierce Catholic vision that is bent on human salvation at any cost, Flannery O’Connor’s stories are like no others. Bigots, intellectual snobs, shyster preachers, and crazed religious seers —a full cavalcade of what critics came to call “grotesques”—careen through her tales, and O’Connor gleefully displays the moral inadequacy of all of them. Twentieth-century short stories often focus on tiny moments, but O’Connor’s stories, with their unswerving eye for vanity and their profound sense of the sacred, feel immense.
10. Money by Martin Amis (1984). Subtitled “A Suicide Note,” this novel follows the death spiral of hedonistic film director John Self as he wrestles with Hollywood stars, New York producers, a flauntingly unfaithful London girlfriend, an anonymous ca.ller that seems to be coming from inside his head, and the writer Martin Amis. Money marries Amis’s comic talents and his preoccupation with the self-annihilating twilight of civilization.