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Percival Everett's Top Ten List
1. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67). Sterne promises the “life and opinions” of his protagonist. Yet halfway through the fourth volume of nine, we are still in the first day of the hero’s life thanks to marvelous digressions and what the narrator calls “unforeseen stoppages”—detailing the quirky habits of his eccentric family members and their friends. This broken narrative is unified by Sterne’s comic touch, which shimmers in this thoroughly entertaining novel that harks back to Don Quixote and foreshadows Ulysses.
2. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (1903). One of the great critiques of Victorian society and morality, this autobiographical novel charts the Pontifex family over several generations. Through the rise and fall of the main character’s piety, Butler rebukes a religious tradition that has grown oppressive and hypocritical. Though he completed the novel in 1884, Butler, a clergyman’s son, refused to publish this, his greatest work, during his lifetime.
3. 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.
4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952). This modernist novel follows the bizarre, often surreal adventures of an unnamed narrator, a black man, whose identity becomes a battleground in racially divided America. Expected to be submissive and obedient in the South, he must decipher the often contradictory rules whites set for a black man’s behavior. Traveling north to Harlem, he meets white leaders intent on controlling and manipulating him. Desperate to seize control of his life, he imitates Dostoevsky’s underground man, escaping down a manhole where he vows to remain until he can define himself. The book’s famous last line, “Who knows, but that on the lower frequencies I speak for you,” suggests how it transcends race to tell a universal story of the quest for self-determination.
5. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A hybrid of literary forms —poetry, prose, and drama —and a groundbreaking work of black literature, this book is a collage of portraits of African Americans from the urban North to the rural South. “Kabnis,” the third part of the book, unites the work’s themes in a story of Ralph Kabnis, an educated northerner who has come to Georgia to teach and is transformed as an artist by the beauty and violence of life there.
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962). The linguistic virtuosity of this futuristic tale —told in nadsat, a russified English —lures us into an unwilling complicity in the drug-fueled bouts of ultraviolence committed by Alex and his droogs (comrades). While the book’s first part portrays these alienated sociopaths, the second part is an old-fashioned allegory: to win release from prison, Alex submits to behavior modification, trading his free will for freedom in this Cold War–era novel that protests against the intimate threat of totalitarian power.
7. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927). Two French missionaries come to the vast and untamed deserts of New Mexico in 1851. Through a series of often symbolic stories about their shared and personal experiences over forty years, Cather depicts both vanished landscapes and timeless themes of faith, loneliness, and our relationships with one another and the natural world.
8. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1971). “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story,” Stegner said of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. The narrator is a divorced, wheelchair-bound professor recalling the life of his pioneer grandparents. He was crude and adventurous, she sophisticated and self-possessed. Together they crossed the country during the nineteenth century; the vivid landscape becomes a character in this story of marriage, American mythology, and the flow of time and memory.
9. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (1987). On one level this is a wickedly hilarious satire of the world of art. Yet, it is also a heartfelt story of American dreams, as a minor artist, whose lack of confidence led him to put down his brush and start collecting other people’s work, looks back on his life, analyzing his high points and low.
10. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984). Nineteenth-century London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia are the three rings of Carter’s surrealist circus starring Fevvers, a trapeze artist with wings. As the bewitching Fevvers describes her life of brothels, freak shows, mad noblemen, and flying fame in high-octane Cockney slang, Carter also gives voice to a host of other characters, including the strong man, the lion tamer, and Sybil the pig. When a journalist tries to expose Fevvers as a hoax, this comic novel with feminist overtones becomes a meditation on identity and storytelling.