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Brad Watson's Top Ten List
1. 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.
2. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985). D. H. Lawrence famously remarked that the archetypal American hero was a stoic, a loner, and a killer. Cormac McCarthy’s tale of the formation and dissolution of a band of scalp hunters in northern Mexico in the late 1840s embodies that dire maxim. Led by a soldier named Glanton and a mysterious, hairless, moral monstrosity known as the “Judge,” these freebooters wipe out Indians, Mexicans, and each other amidst a landscape of such sublime desolation one feels it leaching into their very souls.
3. Airships by Barry Hannah (1978). Barry Hannah can make readers laugh about the grimmest subject while never for a second losing sight of the essential horror. In this story collection, the Mississippi writer creates a cast of scarred, hyperkinetic characters —including a Confederate soldier recalling the tragedy and glory of war to a contemporary man obsessed with his estranged wife —who are stumbling toward illumination.
4. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1979). An old man recalls a story of murder and adultery in his childhood Illinois town, and how he came to betray the friend who witnessed them. This novel by the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker is an American Remembrance of Things Past—heart breaking in its portrayal of a boy’s loss of innocence, and savvy about memory’s self-serving nature.
5. The Death of A Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson (1978). A schoolteacher turned apiarist learns at the begining of the winter thaw that he has cancer and will not live through the spring. Told through his journals, this is his gentle, courageous, and sometimes comic meditation on living with pain.
6. My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918). Featuring a beleaguered central heroine who endures her father’s suicide, is driven to work in the fields, and is seduced, abandoned, and left pregnant, this ought to be a tale of tragic inevitability. Instead, this beautifully elegiac novel offers an unsentimental paean to the prairie, to domesticity, and to memory itself. As remembered by her friend Jim, Ántonia is as mythic and down-to-earth as the Nebraska she inhabits.
7. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan (1993). Nordan unleashes the hellhounds of his prodigious imagination on one of the most notorious racial killings of the century, the Emmett Till murder. Soon we're on a magical mystery tour of the Southern psyche of the mid-1950s and the dawning of guilt and recognition in a whole generation of white Southerners.
8. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930). The Bundrens of Yoknapatawpha County have a simple task —to transport their mother’s body by wagon to her birthplace for burial. Faulkner confronts them with challenges of near biblical proportions in this modernist epic that uses fifteen different psychologically complex first-person narrators (including the dead mother) through its fifty-nine chapters. Soaring language contrasts with the gritty sense of doom in this novel that includes the most famous short chapter in literature: “My mother is a fish.”
9. With by Donald Harrington (2004). The Ozark town of Stay More was Harington’s Yoknapatawpha, a literary landscape much like the Arkansas community where he spent youthful summers that Harington created and populated with a cast of indelible charcaters. A daring coming-of-age story of survival and love, this novel is the sensual, suspenseful tale of Robin Kerr, a young girl abducted from her family and brought to a remote Ozark mountaintop, where she is left to fend for herself. Over the course of a decade, Robin grows up without human relationship, but with the company of animals and an inhabit, the half-living ghost of a young boy.
10. Taking Care by Joy Williams (1982).