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Walter Kirn'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. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952). Lou Ford is the boy next door —a deputy sheriff in his Texas hometown. But he suffers from “the sickness,” which urges him to kill women and others who get in his way. Through Ford’s chilling first-person narration, Thompson takes us inside the mind of a serial killer.
3. Norwood by Charles Portis (1966). The comic conversation and surreal adventure that distinguish Portis’s fiction shine in this first novel about Norwood Pratt, a war hero with country music dreams who’s stuck in a small Texas town. Seeking escape, Norwood decides to find an old Marine buddy who owes him seventy dollars. His trip to Manhattan and then Memphis is filled with quirky characters (a midget, an educated chicken), strange situations, and homespun wisdom: “Don’t let your mouth write a check that you’re ass can’t cash.”
4. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947). It’s the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and Geoffrey Firmin, a British ex-diplomat and professional alcoholic, is eager to oblige, embarking on a self-destructive bender like no other in literature. Lowry, who left hospitalization for his own drinking problem on the day the novel was published, recounts it all with a searing stream of consciousness that nods to Faulkner and Joyce and which Martin Amis called “drunkenness recollected in sobriety.”
5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
6. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934). When a drifter enters her roadside diner, a sexy young woman imagines a new life. Together they plot the murder of her boorish husband in this noir classic, in which spare prose and desperate characters raise dime-store pulp to an art form.
7. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992). Although the title comes from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” it assumes another meaning in this collection of eleven linked short stories about a character who endures drug addiction, car crashes, and violence to learn who he is and achieve some grace. The characters sometimes seem futile as they score drugs and scrounge for money and love, but the real story is the narrator’s fumbling process toward self-discovery.
8. Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (1933). In this short novel on the soul-sickness of mass society, a New York advice columnist with a Christ complex is laid low by his taste for married women and his belief in his own redemptive powers. The letters in Miss Lonelyhearts were based on actual missives to residents of two hotels the novelist managed in the 1920s —letters West steamed open to read.
9. 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.
10. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969). “I am the son in the Jewish joke,” Alexander Portnoy quips, “only it ain’t no joke.” Narrated as a confession to a doctor, the novel portrays Portnoy’s life as a long and tentative escape from the world of his hard-working, constipated father and his overbearing mother. Outrageous and frank in its treatment of sex, family, and Jewishness, this controversial novel is also a tale of generational shift, a rare ode to masturbation, and a stage for Roth’s usual nostalgia: “so piercing is my gratitude —yes, my gratitude!—so sweeping and unqualified is my love.”