Augie comes on stage with one of literature's most famous opening lines. "I am an American, Chicago born, and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted." It's the "Call me Ishmael" of mid-20th-century American fiction. (For the record, Bellow was born in Canada.) Or it would be if Ishmael had been more like Tom Jones with a philosophical disposition. With this teeming book Bellow returned a Dickensian richness to the American novel. As he makes his way to a full brimming consciousness of himself, Augie careens through numberless occupations and countless mentors and exemplars, all the while enchanting us with the slapdash American music of his voice.—R.L.
More than just a classic political novel, Warren's tale of power and corruption in the Depression-era South is a sustained meditation on the unforeseen consequences of every human act, the vexing connectedness of all people and the possibility—it's not much of one—of goodness in a sinful world. Willie Stark, Warren's lightly disguised version of Huey Long, the onetime Louisiana strongman/governor, begins as a genuine tribune of the people and ends as a murderous populist demagogue. Jack Burden is his press agent, who carries out the boss's orders, first without objection, then in the face of his own increasingly troubled conscience. And the politics? For Warren, that's simply the arena most likely to prove that man is a fallen creature. Which it does.—R.L.
To decipher the late 1960's through the story of Swede Levov, whose life is cast into the fires of those years, Roth calls again upon the saturnine side of his disposition. It answers to the purpose as never before. Good-looking, prosperous Swede, who has inherited his father's glove factory in Newark, N.J., and married a former beauty queen, is not stupid, merely fulfilled. Is it this that gives him insufficient means to comprehend the Newark riots of 1967 or the transformation of his beloved daughter into a venomous teenage radical, a child capable of cold-blooded terrorism? Roth's own means are more than sufficient. A writer who is unafraid to linger in the minds of furious men, he leads us fearlessly through this man's grief, bewilderment and rage.—R.L.
Clyde Griffiths is a young man with ambitions. He's in love with a rich girl, but it's a poor girl he has gotten pregnant, Roberta Alden, who works with him at his uncle's factory. One day he takes Roberta canoeing on a lake with the intention of killing her. From there his fate is sealed. But by then Dreiser has made plain that Clyde's fate was long before sealed by a brutal and cynical society. The usual criticism of Dreiser is that, line for line, he's the weakest of the great American novelists. And it's true that he takes a pipe fitter's approach to writing, joining workmanlike sentences one to the other. But by the end he will have built them into a powerful network, and something vital will be flowing through them.—R.L.
No writer has ever been more naked in his contempt for power, or more ruthless in his critique of those who abuse it, than the Englishman born Eric Blair, better known to the world as George Orwell. In Animal Farm he restages the hypocrisies of the Russian Revolution with the principal figures played by, of all things, farm animals. By presenting atrocities in the terms of a fairy tale, he makes them fresh, restoring to readers numbed by the 20th century's parade of disasters a sense of shock and outrage. Paradoxically, by turning Trotsky and Lenin and their followers into pigs and horses and chickens, he reveals them as all too human.—L.G.
O'Hara did for fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, what Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi: surveyed its social life and drew its psychic outlines. But he did it in utterly worldly terms, without Faulkner's taste for mythic inference or the basso profundo of his prose. Julian English is a man who squanders what fate gave him. He lives on the right side of the tracks, with a country club membership and a wife who loves him. His decline and fall, over the course of just 72 hours around Christmas, is a matter of too much spending, too much liquor and a couple of reckless gestures. (Now Julian, don't throw that drink in the well-connected Irishman's face. Don't make that pass at the gangster's mistress.) That his calamity is petty and preventable only makes it more powerful. In Faulkner the tragedies all seem to be taking place on Olympus, even when they're happening among the lowlifes. In O'Hara they could be happening to you.—R.L.
You could almost hear the collective generational sigh of relief in 1970 when Blume published this groundbreaking, taboo-trampling young adult novel: finally, a book that talks frankly about sex without being prim or prurient, and about religion without scolding or condescending. A few months shy of her 12th birthday, Margaret Simon is starting school in a new town and asking God some serious questions. Like, when is she going to get her period? What bra should she buy? And if her mom is Jewish and her dad is Christian, is she supposed to join the Y or the Jewish Community Center? Blume turned millions of pre-teens into readers. She did it by asking the right questions—and avoiding pat, easy answers.—L.G.
Malamud was a writer who always had one eye fixed on the eternal and one on the here and now. The eternal was the realm of moral quandaries. The here and now was usually a world of struggling 20th-century Jews. It was his genius to show the two constantly intersecting. In this book, his masterpiece, Morris Bober is a woebegone neighborhood grocer whose modest store is failing and whose luck actually takes a turn for the worse when he is held up by masked hoodlums. Or is it worse? When a stranger appears and offers to work without pay, "for the experience", it doesn't take long for the reader to realize that the stranger is one of the men who robbed Bober. But just what are his motives in returning? He seems to be seeking to atone, but he soon begins quietly robbing the till, while also falling in love with Bober's daughter, theft of a different kind. From this intricate material Malamud builds a devastating meditation upon suffering, penance and forgiveness, and the ways in which the weight of the world can be lifted, just a little, by determined acts of grace.— R.L.
O'Brien—in real life Irishman Brian O'Nolan—would have been disappointed if anybody could come up with a coherent summary of this brilliant, beer-soaked miniature masterpiece. One of the best-kept secrets of 20th-century literature, At Swim-Two-Birds is ostensibly a novel about a lazy, impoverished college student who's writing a novel ("One beginning and one ending for a book is a thing I did not agree with," he opines), but his characters won't stay put, and they get mixed up with all kinds of local Dublin types and figures out of Gaelic myth—it's like Ulysses played out in a comic mode, on a more human scale. Dylan Thomas said of it, "This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl." Even better to keep it for yourself.—L.G.
A magnificent deception. Briony Tallis, the intricate English girl at the center of Atonement, is a budding writer. At the age of 13 she believes that through her powers of invention and language, "an unruly world could be made just so." In a complicated way, she turns out to be right, but only after she turns out to be catastrophically wrong. In the first half of the book, she passionately misunderstands a series of events she witnesses on a summer day in 1935, which leads her to formulate a lie that ruins the lives of her older sister Cecilia and Cecilia's lover Robbie. So much for the virtues of the imagination. But McEwan is crafty. Even as he shows us the deadly force of storytelling, he demonstrates its beguilements on every page. Then he leads us to a surprise ending in which the power of fiction, which has been used to undo lives, is used again to make heartbroken amends.—R.L.
Sethe is an escaped slave in post-Civil War Ohio. Her body is scarred from the atrocities of her white owners, but it's her memories that really torture her: she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Beloved, so the child would never know the sufferings of a life of servitude. But in Morrison's novels the present is never safe from the past, and Beloved returns as an angry, hungry ghost. Sethe must come to terms with her, exorcise her, if she ever wants to move forward and find peace. Rich with historical, political and above all personal resonances, written in prose that melts and runs with the heat of the emotion it carries, Beloved is a deeply American, urgently important novel that searches for that final balance between grief, anger and acceptance.—L.G.
"I am a camera with its shutter open." There is something unmistakably 20th Century about this, the opening line to Goodbye to Berlin. In their coolness and clarity and melancholy detachment these words express more about a moment in time than most entire novels do. Berlin Stories is not quite a novel; it's actually two short ones stuck together, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. But they form one coherent snapshot of a lost world, the antic, cosmopolitan Berlin of the 1930's, where jolly expatriates dance faster and faster, as if that would save them from the creeping rise of Nazism. One of Isherwood's greatest characters, the racy, doomed Sally Bowles, took center stage in the book's musical adaptation, Cabaret, but the theatrical version can't match the power and richness of the original.—L.G.
"I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be." This sentence, from the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, marks the last time you can be fully confident that you know what's going on. The first novel by Raymond Chandler, who at the time was a 51-year-old former oil company executive, is a mosaic of shadows, a dark tracery of forking paths. Along them wanders Philip Marlowe, a cynical, perfectly hard-boiled private investigator hired by an old millionaire to find the husband of his beautiful, bitchy wildcat daughter. Marlowe is tough and determined, and he does his best to be a good guy, but there are no true heroes in Chandler's sun-baked, godforsaken Los Angeles, and every plot turn reveals how truly twisted the human heart is.—L.G.
Frosty, reserved Iris and her hot-blooded sister Laura grow up wealthy and privileged in a chilly Canadian town. But when the family fortune falters in the Depression, Iris is married off to a cruel industrialist, and Laura drives her car off a bridge, leaving behind a pulpy science fiction novel (presented in parallel to the primary plot) that seems to contain a coded, masked guide to the secrets that ruled her life and brought about her early death. Told in the brittle, acerbic voice of the elderly Iris, who is left behind to decode Laura's legacy, The Blind Assassin is a tour-de-force of nested narratives, subtle reveals and buried memories.—L.G..
"The floor of the playa lay smooth and unbroken by any track and the mountains in their blue islands stood footless in the void like floating temples." McCarthy's prose has the character of the landscape it describes: Harsh and pure, as if it had been sculpted by wind and sand, like a naturally occurring phenomenon. In Blood Meridian McCarthy uses it to spin a yarn of gothic violence: In the 1840's a young boy joins a band of cutthroats who hunt Indians on the border between Texas and Mexico, under the leadership of an amoral, albino arch-monster known as the Judge. Rarely has literature presented spectacles of violence more extreme or less gratuitous. Blood Meridian summons up shadows of Dante and Melville, and demands of every reader that they reexamine why and how they cling to morality in a fallen world.—L.G.
Once and only once in his career the bitter, urbane, howlingly funny satirist Evelyn Waugh screwed up all his nerve and his talent and produced a genuine literary masterpiece. Though it's saddled with a faded doily of a title, Brideshead Revisited is actually a wildly entertaining, swooningly funny-sad story about an impressionable young man, Charles Ryder, who goes to Oxford in the 1930's and falls in love with a family: the wealthy, eccentric, aristocratic Flytes, owners of a grand old country house called Brideshead. In the first half of the book the exquisite, hilariously fey Sebastian Flyte, who is Charles's classmate, teaches the young man about beauty, booze and witty conversation. In the second half every one grows up and everything goes spectacularly to smash. Told in flashbacks from the dark days of WWII, Brideshead is aglimmer with the guttering-candle glow of an elegant age that was already passing away.—L.G.
Whatever happened to Wilder? He was a lion in his day, prized—Pulitzer-prized, as this book was—a star of stage and page. Today, notwithstanding the occasional production of Our Town or The Skin of Our Teeth, he's ever in danger of falling out of fashion. He seems too courtly, too composed. For proof of how powerful those qualities can be, there's this book. In 1714, "the finest bridge in all Peru" collapses and five people plunge to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, decides to track down their individual stories to prove that even what seem to be random misfortunes are consistent with God's plan. That his discoveries turn out to be more complex will come as no surprise. What may surprise are the beguilements of Wilder's teasing, ironic, beautifully written tale, unlike anything else in American fiction.— R.L.
New York City, 1911. A young, painfully sensitive boy named David is growing up in the grimy Jewish slums of the Lower East Side, with his unemployable, rageoholic father and his angelic, nurturing mother. Call It Sleep has the setting of a gritty, naturalistic political novel—and it works perfectly well as such—but it is at heart a profoundly interior book. Roth tirelessly and unflinchingly records the daily damage that the harshness of slum life inflicts on David's quiveringly receptive, emotionally defenseless consciousness; as a precise chronicler of minute impressions, and of the growth of an intellectually precocious mind, Roth's only equal is James Joyce. After its publication in 1934 Call It Sleep sank from view for 30 years, before a new edition became a bestseller in the 1960's. It will never be forgotten again.—L.G.
Captain John Yossarian is a bomber pilot who's just trying to make it through WWII alive. But the only excuse the Army will accept for refusing to fly a mission is insanity, and if Yossarian refuses to fly he is, by definition, sane. This is the self-devouring logical worm that lies at the heart of Catch-22, the story of Yossarian, his colleagues—who respond to the horrors of war with a range of seriocomic neuroses and psychoses—and his superiors, who respond to the horrors of war by sending Yossarian on ever more pointless and dangerous missions for the purpose of enhancing their own reputations. Catch-22 is a bitter, anguished joke of a novel that embraces the existential absurdity of war without ever quite succumbing to it.—L.G.
No matter how many high school English teachers try to domesticate The Catcher in the Rye in class, it will never lose its satirical edge. When Holden Caulfield learns he's going to be kicked out of yet another private school, he bails in the middle of the night ("Sleep tight, ya morons!" he yells) and heads to New York City to bum around for a few days—hitting on girls, thinking about his dead brother, worrying about where the ducks go in the wintertime—before he deals with his parents. The time passes in an agony of anhedonia that transcends the merely adolescent: It's a permanent reminder of the sweetness of childhood, the hypocrisy of the adult world, and the strange no-man's-land that lies in between.—L.G.
Like 1984, this is a book in which an entire social order is implied through language. And what language! To hint at the vile universe of the 15-year-old delinquent Alex and his murderous buddies, Burgess created "nadsat," a rich futuristic patois. "Sinny" for "cinema." "Viddy" for "see," "horrorshow" for "good"—from the Russian, khorosho, which gives you some idea of which political system has prevailed. The words locate him in a world of corrupted values, violence and boundless infantile indulgence. (His drug is "milk plus.") When Alex is apprehended by the authorities and subjected to psychological conditioning to make him nauseated at any impulse towards violence, Burgess's book becomes a meditation on whether a world in which evil can be freely chosen might still be preferable to to one in which goodness is compelled. Stanley Kubrick's coldly magnificent "sinny" adaptation has sometimes threatened to overshadow this great novel. Don't let it happen.—R.L.
It's a novel that has its sources in history—the only sustained slave revolt in American history, an 1831 uprising led by Turner, an educated slave who led a group of fellow escapees on a bloody trail through southeastern Virginia. Before they were stopped, just short of seizing an arsenal, they had killed about 60 whites. And before he was hanged, Turner dictated a final testament, a document that still exists. But Styron's book is not that one. It's an invented version of that text, one ringed with bitterness and fire. He plumbs the mind of a man who believed himself ordained to slaughter whites in retribution for the ordeals of slavery, but who found himself nearly incapable of putting in the blade. Turner as Styron imagines him is not a plaster saint, not a cardboard monster. He's a man, one whose ferocious yearnings were formed in the cauldron of a hateful institution.—R.L.
If family is a machine for making you crazy, has there ever been a machine better oiled than the Lamberts? The elderly father, Alfred, is a retired railway engineer sliding into the mental and physical chaos of Parkinson's disease. Wife Enid fashions ever more ingenious varieties of denial. Son Chip is helping con men in Lithuania. His brother Gary is consoling himself with booze for the miseries of his own disintegrating home life. Their sister Denise, in the time she can spare from her career as a celebrity chef, makes reckless thrusts into other people's marriages. Their miseries are an opening onto the larger discontents of the society that they—we—live in, but Franzen keeps his terrible focus on the family. This can be a very funny book in places, but the laughs come hard, very hard.—R.L.
Summoned to serve as executor for the will of her ultra-rich former lover, Oedipa Maas is led into the mystery of Trystero, a shadowy band of, of—of what exactly? They have operated for centuries, connecting the dispossesed, the discontented and the strung out by way of their secret underground postal system, a network that may also serve other ends. As she wanders through California in the mid-1960's, trying to unravel their secret, Oedipa senses for the first time a larger, weirder universe of the disinherited, a scampering, fugitive reality just beneath the placid surface of what she thinks she knows. With its slapstick paranoia and its heartbreaking metaphysical soliloquies, Lot 49 takes place in the tragicomic universe that is instantly recognizable as Pynchon-land. Is it is also a mystery novel? Absolutely, so long as you remember that the mystery here is the one at the heart of everything.—R.L.
The words "twelve-novel cycle" don't exactly inspire readerly zeal in most people, but once you catch the rhythm of Powell's dodecahedral masterpiece it's hard to put it down. Beginning in the 1920's, A Dance to the Music of Time follows the lives of a group of English friends and acquaintances as they make their various ways through life: meeting and parting, succeeding and failing, loving and hating, living and dying. There is ample room for both comedy and tragedy in this capacious, large-hearted work, but Powell's real triumph is the way he catches the rhythm of fate itself, the way it brings people together, only to spin them apart, then reunite them later as near-strangers, transformed in unexpected ways by the intervening years.—L.G.
Nathanael West's Hollywood novel takes place mostly at the margins of the movie kingdom, the universe of set painters and extras, frustrated small-timers, hangers-on and oddities. There are prostitutes here, transplanted Eskimos, a failed comic who sells silver polish door to door so that he can force luckless customers to watch his act. No one in this book has found the promise that California was supposed to offer, and at the end their anger and resentments collect into a riot in the streets that is the sum of their individual discontents. "They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment.... The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies." This was West's last novel. He died the following year in a car accident, at age 37, rushing to the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald. How he would have loved that last grotesque detail.—R.L.
Cather at her most matter-of-fact and, as a consequence, her most powerful. She based this book on the life of Bishop Jean Baptiste L'Amy—she calls him Father Latour—the French-born Ohio cleric who was assigned by the church to rebuild the faith in New Mexico after the territory was annexed by the U.S. in 1831. With an old friend, Father Vaillant, Latour sets out for Santa Fe. He will find the church there to be fragmented and corrupt, with priests taking wives and charging exorbitant fees to perform marriages. Latour embarks on a decades-long effort to reform and reinvigorate the diocese. The style and structure of this book are strange, unemphatic, as if Cather had simply laid the scenes side by side in a tapestry. She compared the book to a legend, in which no event is given much dramatic weight. If this sounds like a formula for boredom, it's not. Her serene language, with its immemorial simplicity, gives the story a weight mere drama could never provide.—R.L.
Agee was a poet, a penetrating film critic for TIME and other magazines, an intricate public conscience, and a man who carried all his life the burden of his father's death in a car accident when Agee was six. (Forty years later to the day Agee would die of a heart attack.) He brought all of that, both his gifts and his psychic injuries, to this grave and lyrical story of Rufus Follet, a boy whose world is upended by his father's sudden death in an auto accident. What this book lacks in form it more than makes up for in subtly delineated feeling. Agee's forgiving embrace of the deeply imperfect people he describes, a kind of Whitmanesque tenderness, stays with you a long time.—R.L.
Portia Quayne is that most dangerous commodity, an innocent child. At 16, after years of dragging around European hotels with her parents, she's been orphaned. She finds herself now in the care of her prosperous older half brother and his reluctant wife. What they and their heedless friends will show to Portia is the disenchanted kingdom of adulthood. But Bowen's real genius was in recognizing what Portia will show to them. In the mirror of her innocent eyes, experience will catch a glimpse of its own reflection. It's not a pretty picture.—R.L.
Four friends set out on a canoe trip through backwoods Georgia—a lark, a weekend's diversion, a blissful, beery break from their day jobs. But their itinerary unexpectedly swings into darker territory when they meet a gang of savage, sodomitical mountain men, and by the time they emerge again—most of them—from the wilderness, they have been through some of the blackest terrain, both geographical and spiritual, since Marlowe went up the river in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Though it's been partially eclipsed by the movie version—you know it for that "Dueling Banjos" scene—the original Deliverance is a visceral, dangerous thriller packed with forbidden knowledge.—L.G.
A weird current pulses through this book. The tale of a heroin deal gone very bad, it's also a merciless picture of America at the ragged end of the Vietnam era. John Converse is a journalist preparing to head home from Saigon when he's persuaded to join a dope-smuggling scheme. Once back in California, he's ambushed by a pair of ex-cons in the service of a corrupt federal drug agent who wants to pocket the drugs. The hapless goons, who also indulge in occasional sex with each other, drag Converse on a trek across the Southwest in search of the strung-out intriguers who are actually holding the stuff. Those would be Converse's wife Marge, who's blandly stupefied by prescription drugs, and his sad-sack confederate Hicks. Do we need to tell you it all ends badly? Or that the heroin is a stand-in for Vietnam? It's the poison that came home, like the war, to pollute an already bleak and sawtoothed social landscape. Bleakness is all in Stone's world, which is unrelenting and unforgettable.—R.L.
A story of suffering and redemption, told in Cheever's fullest register. Ezekiel Farragut, university professor, family man, drug addict, is in Falconer State Prison for having killed his brother with a poker. In this shabby purgatory, he struggles with his memories, his guilt, and his need to remain human in a dehumanizing place, until an affair with a fellow prisoner reawakens his ability to love, even if the young man is a cynical operator and love is just another burden to bear. In some ways this book represented Cheever going far afield from the suburbs where he had made his name. (Not too far: Sing Sing was near his home in Ossining, N.Y. He had taught prisoners there in the early 70's.) But Farragut is not so different from Cheever's lawn-mowing householders. Yearning, wayward, beset by anger and need—he's just a Cheever character in extremis. He suffers beautifully, but he suffers to a purpose. When he finds a rapprochement with the world, however tenuous, it speaks to the prisoner in us all.—R.L.
A magnificent game of a novel, one in which the brilliant postmodern contrivances actually add to the poignancy of its anguished Victorian characters. Charles Smithson is an amateur paleontologist living on the southwestern coast of England. Ernestina is his drearily upright fiancee. Sarah Woodruff is an enigmatic local governess, said to be pining for a French soldier who has misused her. The fourth major figure in this book is not a character but the author. By no means all-powerful, he discovers early on that he has lost control of his characters and proposes in that case to let them have their freedom. And he means it. The story procedes through alternative episodes—in one Charles marries Ernestina; in another he doesn't—and multiple endings, with the author sometimes turning up to walk among his characters and comment tartly on their actions. In its final pages—don't dare to call them a conclusion; in a book so open-ended, what could that word mean?—he opens a vista onto freedom that's both dazzling and devastating.—R.L.
Anna Wulf is a writer who keeps four notebooks, each a different color, each reflecting a different part of her. The black one contains recollections of her youthful wartime years in West Africa, experiences that went into her first novel. In the red one she reflects on her later life in London's leftist and intellectual circles. The blue notebook analyzes her fraught relations with men. The yellow contains her fragmentary attempts at new fiction. With the fifth, the golden notebook, and with The Golden Notebook, Wulf/Lessing struggles to tie all the threads fearlessly back together again. All the currents of her time flow through Anna—Marx and Freud and the burgeoning dissatisfactions among women that would eventually explode into feminism. Lessing's earnestness can be too much at times, but as a portrait of a woman coming to grips with the realities of her time her book is indispensable.—R.L.
For his ferocious debut novel, Baldwin reached back to his experiences as a teenage Pentecostal preacher in Harlem and set them down in language steeped in the high and mighty rhetoric of Scripture. At age 14 John Grimes is bedeviled by the new stirrings in "his treacherous and bewildering body" and resentful of his preacher stepfather, once an energetic sinner, whose dual nature is now divided between the dutiful but restless John and John's older brother Roy, another hell-raiser in training. The boys' mother, Elizabeth, labors to keep the passions of her men in check, all the while holding secrets of her own. Their stories run dark and deep, while the fierce music of Baldwin's voice courses through those stories and lends them majesty.—L.G.
It's one of the best-selling books ever bound between covers, but that's not what makes Margaret Mitchell's magnificent mint julep of a novel great. The ultimate, original sweeping historical romance, it follows high-spirited Scarlett O'Hara, roguish Rhett Butler and romantic, infinitely good-looking Ashley Wilkes as the world that nurtured them is swept away in the cataclysm of the Civil War. As quintessentially American as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is English, Gone with the Wind is a colossally readable romance novel—love stories do not come more triangular—but it's also the definitive telling of one of the basic American mythologies: the passing away, in blood and ashes, of the grand old South.—L.G.
The storms of the great Dust Bowl had barely settled when Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, which follows a family of impoverished "Okies," the Joads, as they chase the mirage of a good life westward from their devastated midwestern farm to California. The Joads find only bitterness, squalor and oppression as migrant agricultural workers living in "Hoovervilles," but their indomitable strength in the face of an entire continent's worth of adversity makes Steinbeck's epic far more than a history of unfortunate events: It's both a record of its time and a permanent monument to human perseverance.—L.G.
No, it is not unreadable. For most of its 700-plus pages it's so crazily, scarily, sumptuously readable that you hate to put it aside even as the last paragraph thunders down on your head. The unsummarizable plot centers, to the extent that it centers at all, on Tyrone Slothrop, an American who comes to the attention of British intelligence during World War II when a map indicating the locales of his sexual encounters with London women shows that they correspond with the places struck by German V-2 missiles. Can his erections predict the random distribution of agents of death? From there we proceed into a massive continent-wide effort to construct a V-2, which is itself an occasion for a fantastic multitude of meditations upon the human need to build systems of intellectual order even as we use the same powers of intellect to hasten our destruction. (Did we mention that this is also a comedy, more or less?) Among American writers of the second half of the 20th century, Pynchon is the indisputed candidate for lasting literary greatness. This book is why.—R.L.
No one gives better parties than Jazz Age zillionaire Jay Gatsby. No one has a bigger house or a bigger pool, or drives a longer, sleeker, more opulent automobile. His silk shirts alone—"shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue"—can and do reduce women to tears. But who is he? Where does he come from, where did he make his megabucks, and why—his sober, straight-arrow neighbor (and narrator) Nick wonders—does he stand on his dock at night and stretch out his arms to a green light shining across the bay from his magnificent mansion? The Great Gatsby lays bare the empty, tragic heart of the self-made man. It's not only a page-turner and a heartbreaker, it's one of the most quintessentially American novels ever written.—L.G.
Devoted to his wife, Brenda, his son, John Andrew, and to Hetton, his very ugly neo-Gothic homestead, Tony Last will lose all three. As his name is always announcing, Last lives at the end of a dying age, the brittle, exhausted 1930s, when England, at least Waugh's England, is a place where Brenda can throw herself at the feet of a childish lover and where Last can discard his life on an absurd caprice. Waugh's own marriage was disintegrating when he wrote this, and his unhappiness led him into wider realms of feeling—pathos, rage— than any you find in his earlier triumphs of nasty wit, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. Sound dreary? Not even slightly. If this is Waugh at his bleakest it's also Waugh at his deepest, most poisonously funny.—R.L.
When Carson McCullers was a teenager, she came to New York City to study piano at Juilliard. She never matriculated; she lost the purse with her tuition money in it. Such small, unredressed tragedies as these are at the silent, solitary heart of McCullers' first novel, which centers on a deaf-mute and a teenage tomboy living in a small Georgia town in the 1930s. McCullers' characters reach out to one another for sympathy and understanding, but not all of them can complete the connection, and their isolated thoughts form a choir of amazing, transcendent poignance—music only the reader can hear. —L.G.
He felt the loyalty we all feel to unhappiness—the sense that there is where we really belong. Nobody could do abjection like Greene. And no one could parse moral dilemmas with quite his eye for the subtle ways that Satan persuades the righteous. Henry Scobie is one of his supreme creations, a British colonial police officer stationed during World War II in a damp, vulture-ridden West African town. A Roman Catholic mindful of his duties to God, Scobie thinks of himself as incorruptible, but he has not counted on the power of his own excesses of pity to beguile him. To deliver his wife from unhappiness he is led into complicity with smugglers; to save a young woman from despair—but no less to save himself—he is drawn into adultery; to rescue them both from his misjudgments he is led to betray his God. A man for whom humility becomes a kind of perverse pride arrives at a place where he wills his own damnation as the one means to escape his earthly predicaments.—R.L.
Like Binx Bolling in Percy's The Moviegoer, but at a much higher pitch of talkative despair, Chaim Herzog is a man on a philosophical quest. "Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas," he tells us. "I even know which ones." But unlike Bolling he is in the grip of a crisis that's not merely existential. His wife has left him for somebody he thought was a good friend, taking with her his beloved daughter. This plunges him into a tormented appraisal not only of himself and the people around him, but of nearly everything that has transpired since the Age of Reason got under way. You get to watch him shake his head, and sometimes his fist, at the world, all the while asking it, unbreak my heart.—R.L.
Fingerbone is a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest. It rests along a lake that has the distinction of once having claimed an entire train that slid from a bridge into its dark waters one night, taking almost all on board to their deaths. Time swallows people in the same way in this sly book. The narrator is Ruth, a teenaged girl. She and her sister are raised, affectionately but haphazardly, by various generations of the women in her all-too-eccentric family. This is a book about women, making homes and leaving them. Even when the girls stay home, the days and nights pass and the plot goes nowhere in particular, Robinson arrives again and again in resounding places.—R.L.
When Mohun Biswas married his wife, Shama, he effectively married her entire family, the daunting, smothering Tulsis. Set in the Hindu community in postcolonial Trinidad—where Naipaul was born—A House for Mr. Biswas is the life story of a man who wanted only a home, but who was a magnet for misfortune, oppression and humiliation, "a wanderer with no place he could call his own, with no family except that which he was to attempt to create out of the engulfing world of the Tulsis." Mohun's survival is a triumph of resilience and persistence and humor, an epic of dignity and self-respect doggedly clung to.—L.G.
Though he briefly became emperor, Claudius, the limping, stuttering grandson of Caesar Augustus, is not your usual Roman on a pedestal. Sly, even bitchy, an appalled observer of his treacherous times —in his voice you hear the worldliness of classical literature with none of its marble officialdom. A member of a ruthless and murderous imperial family, he survives because he seems to all around him the least consequential twig of the family tree. But Claudius bears enduring witness to a moment when the virtues of the Roman republic, which has already been disposed of by the time he begins his tale, are being lost to the bloodlusts and hubris of the Roman empire.—R.L.
The title is a sly wink at the book's massive girth—it's 1,000-plus pages in most editions—but the reference to Hamlet is well-earned; moreover, it's a damn funny book. The action takes place in Boston at two separate but curiously similar venues—an elite tennis academy and a drug rehabilitation facility—in a near future in which calendar years are available for corporate sponsorship (the Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and so on). The plot of Infinite Jest—which revolves around, among other things, a lost, unwatchably beautiful art film and a conspiracy among wheelchair-bound Quebecois secessionists—is decidedly secondary to the painfully funny dialogue and Wallace's endlessly rich ruminations and speculations on addiction, entertainment, art, life and, of course, tennis.—L.G.
A nameless young black man wends a tortuous path from a southern town—where a local white men's club mockingly awards him a scholarship to a black college—to the streets of New York City, where everybody, black and white, left and right, man and woman, seems to have their own ideas about who he is and what purpose he can serve. Evenhandedly exposing the hypocrisies and stereotypes of all comers, Invisible Man is far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It's the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century. —L.G.
This book, Faulkner's grave meditation on race, violence and all the fraught legacies of the South, is the first in which he confronted head-on the poisons of racism. Joe Christmas believes himself to be of mixed race. (His parentage is uncertain.) He has escaped from a miserable childhood to the town of Jefferson, Miss., where he unleashes his demons. Lena Grove has come there, too, looking for the father of the child she is carrying while Christmas fulfills his wretched destiny. This book is less daring structurally than The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. Though time still folds back on itself, so that events seem to take place in a zone beyond normal chronology, the flashbacks are easier to follow. But the force of Faulkner's genius is in entirely in play.—R.L.
Four English children playing hide-and-seek accidentally wander through an enchanted wardrobe and into Narnia, a land locked in a deep magical winter by the spells of an evil witch-queen. Only the fierce, benevolent lion Aslan (with a little help from the children) can vanquish the tyrant and bring summer back to Narnia and the talking animals who live there. Lewis was a Christian philosopher, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and the six more Narnia novels that followed) can be read as Christian morality tales, but they're not just kid stuff: Lewis had a surprisingly sharp eye for the dark shades of the human soul, sin and anger and temptation, and readers of any faith, or none at all, will feel the enormous power of Lewis's irresistible, transporting sense of wonder.—L.G.
Time critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo pick the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.