Sunday, December 23, 2012

My favorite Martians

A friend of this blog throws one of my throwaway remarks back in my face: “Everyone who reads novels as if they were his morning prayers,” I wrote four years ago, “has longtime favorites that he wants to press on his friends.” So what are they? he asks impatiently, before wishing me good health.

What follows, then, are the books I’ve reread several times, not out of a conviction they represent the best that has been thought and said in any place or time, but simply because I enjoy reading and rereading them. They are like favorite players. They may not be the best ever, but they appeal to you on other grounds, probably irrelevant grounds: their unassuming talent, their fundamental decency, their work ethic, their respect for the traditions of the game, their willingness to give themselves up.

I’ve written about several of my favorites already, including: Frederick Buechner’s Godric, Esther Forbes’s Mirror for Witches, Zoë Heller’s Believers, Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre, J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban, Francine Prose’s Goldengrove, Charles Willeford’s Shark-Infested Custard, John Williams’s Stoner, Thomas Williams’s Hair of Harold Roux, and Leon de Winter’s Hoffman’s Hunger. Here are some more of my personal darlings; these I’ve never written about. They might as well be aliens from another planet; many people have never even seen a copy of them. Although I might not want to claim that they are classics, their humaneness makes them good company.

• Richard P. Brickner, Tickets (1981). Alan Hoffman is ga-ga for opera (learnedly so). Then he meets Betsy Ring, a married woman, and commences an operatic love affair with her. Witty, hyper-intelligent, deeply affecting. Or, in other words (Benjamin DeMott’s words, in this case), a “flawless contemporary romance.”

• R. V. Cassill, Clem Anderson (1961). The satisfyingly bulky faux-biography of a larger-than-life literary figure who is something like Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas rolled into one. A reminder of how seriously some people used to treat literature.

• Martha Coooley, The Archivist (1998). The daughter of Holocaust survivors who converted to Christianity wants to get her hands on T. S. Eliot’s letters, hoping to learn something about conversion. The archivist who guards them refuses her request, but does not refuse her.

• Thomas Gallagher, Oona O’ (1964). Pregnant and penniless and abandoned by her baby’s father in Italy, Oona O’Hagen must fend for herself, having the child on her own and finding a way to return to America. “Her expectations,” Gallagher writes, “never went beyond the immediate future, which was perhaps why she was so demanding of the present.” The most charming and believable woman in fiction—perhaps ever.

• Mark Harris, Wake Up, Stupid (1959). An epistolary novel about an English professor who is famous on campus for waking slumbering students by yelling the book’s title at them. He is also a Mormon, an ex-boxer, and an obsessive admiring reader of James Boswell’s journals.

• Howard Jacobson, The Very Model of a Man (1992). Jacobson’s kookiest and least typical novel. Cain narrates the years after Creation until the collapse of Babel’s tower. His relationship with God, “the walking voice,” “His Great Pervasiveness,” is hilarious. Avoid all liquids while reading.

• Thomas Keneally, Passenger (1979). A novel narrated by a foetus from the first stirrings of consciousness during a sonogram (“[T]hat’s the thing about self-awareness,” he says. “It brings with it the yen to make memoirs”) through the months of gestation, while his parents travel to Teheran and Tel Aviv and he is visited by unaccountable memories of things experienced by his great-great-great-great-grandfather, one of the convicts who originally settled Australia. Really, how often can you honestly describe a book as one of a kind?

• Larry McMurtry, Moving On (1970). The novel that manages to be both the best ever written about rodeo and the best ever written about graduate school in English. It introduces the characters who would later become more famous in Terms of Endearment.

• Richard Price, Lush Life (2008). If Abraham Cahan’s Rise of David Levinsky was the definitive novel of the Lower East Side for the early twentieth century, Price’s crime novel (though too intricately plotted, too crowded with distractingly unique characters, too multifarious of theme and observation for a crime novel) is the same thing for the early twenty-first. Good fiction for fans of The Wire.

• Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version (1997). One of the great Jewish talking novels (as I’ve taken to calling them). At the age of sixty-eight, Barney Panofsky finally sits down to write the novel he had once hoped to write as a young bohemian expatriate in Paris. Abandoned by his wife (the love of his life), just beginning to suffer the onset of Alzheimer’s, Barney tells his life story and fully vents his opinions. Thankfully, he comes equipped with a 99.4%-foolproof bullshit detector.

Well, there are ten more to add to the first ten. If these are not enough, however, you could always pick up a novel—any novel—by the great underappreciated Elizabeth Taylor. Start with her first, At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945). Twelve more wonderful novels, for a grand total of thirty-two.


Unknown said...

I have read Morte d'Urban half a dozen times since discovering it more than a dozen years ago. At each rereading, I find myself puzzled: When there are so many books out there, why am I reading this one again? I cannot put my finger on the complete answer except to say it both saddens me and encourages me; I envy the priest, and I fear that I am too much like the priest. Even as I write this comment, I find myself tempted to begin Powers' novel again. So, can you explain your fascination with Powers' novel?

D. G. Myers said...

I tried to explain my fascination with Powers’s Morte D’Urban here.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for leading me to The Archivist.