An ongoing library book sale is a glorious thing. The prices are fantastically generous (I’ve been to some such sales where paperbacks are priced by the bushel, like farmstand vegetables), and the selection can be as idiosyncratic as the institution’s patronage. Themes appear and disappear like heat mirages, and on any given day, you can walk away with genuine treasures.
Perfect case in point: just the other day, I skimmed through a library book sale and came out with a small stack of books that would make a fine cornerstone to anybody’s library of great 20th Century novels – latter 20th Century, that is, post-1950, the decades that present so many problems for contemporary canon-makers, since so many readers are curiously reluctant to express the same certainty about the ‘permanent classic’ status of a book written when their parents were alive as they are to use that same certainty about a book written 200 years ago. This reluctance has always struck me as odd – almost like it had an element of high school popularity-contest to it. Surely a truly great book announces itself just as clearly yesterday as it did in 1718? Seems to me it’s a timid critic indeed who doesn’t trust his own evaluative abilities unless he’s got the backing of ten generations of English professors.
The problem, of course, is the New York Times best-seller list. The rise of such lists to dominance in the book-buying world has made the so-called ‘common reader’ more aware than ever that a popular title might not be a good one – indeed, probably isn’t. Just last week I overheard a typical exchange between two bookstore customers trying to work up their courage to buy a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey: “Is it supposed to be good?” “No, of course not – it’s a best-seller!” The insidious unstated understanding is that anything entertaining enough to sell millions of copies must have sacrificed its claims to quality in order to get where it is – and the reverse assumption also tends to be true, which is why a credulous reading public might make a boring piece of horse-poop like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a best-seller. Had that book been entertaining (an Everest of a hypothetical, I know, but still), it would have been derided as pandering (that double standard also works against books that aren’t horse-poop – just look at the condescending sniffs that greeted Colson Whitehead’s terrific Zone One because it had the temerity to be entertaining as well as superbly written).
There have been times, though, when such dichotomies weren’t foregone conclusions. All six of these collection-starters were best-sellers in their day, and yet all six are genuine, enduring great works of fiction. This stack of six sturdy mass-market paperbacks, purchased for a song, could easily form the nucleus of a ‘contemporary fiction’ collection that now need not even bother making all the usual Kundera/Marquez/Calvino mistakes that hold such collections back for years (or, if you’re a Barnes & Noble Information Desk worker, for the entire length of your narrow, doctrinaire reading life) – from these six, an eager young (or young at heart!) reader could branch out in all kinds of wise directions … reading the teachers of these authors, the students of these authors, and, in some cases, the bodies of work of these authors (with caution, of course: two of our six never wrote a better book than the one in this stack, and three of them only wrote one book to equal their entry here, in a lifetime of trying). They’re six to start a library:
The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor – like many of the books on this short list, this is a title I’ve recommended many, many times before, the hilarious and ultimately quite touching story of Frank Skeffington, an embattled and problematically ‘old school’ mayor of a unnamed city very much like Boston. Skeffington is facing his last run for office, and most of the old ward-and-watch electioneering techniques he and his lieutenants have mastered for half a century are creaking with age and showing unexpected weaknesses in the face of a dawning new era of public service. In the last year of his life, O’Connor was interviewed by a news service veteran with the fine old name of Donoghue and openly lamented the changing of the times. “I’d rather go to somebody like Skeffington and ask a favor,” the old writer wheezed, “than fill out a form and stand in line at some bureau.” And yet, despite such sentiments, this is the least bitter novel you’ll ever read on politics (it’s the precise emotional counterweight to the ferocious All the King’s Men) – and very much the funniest, with a handful of long set-pieces any self-respecting writer would give his Pulitzer to claim. The reviewer for the old Boston Herald called it “engrossing” – and so will you.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – This one too is a frequent recommendation of mine, not just the big, great novel but also the TV mini-series that bears up so well to re-viewing. Like so many of these six titles, the book’s plot has almost passed into American popular folklore: Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, best friends and former Texas Rangers, decide to strike out from their tiny Texas town and lead a herd of cattle to the promised grazing lands of 1876 Montana. Along the route of that epic journey, we get to know a vast host of characters – crewmates, old loves, also-ran heroes (and their hapless sidekicks), fearsome villains, and even a pair of enterprising pigs. Every reader finds their own favorite book in these pages, but for me, the main attraction is the very understated way McMurtry portrays friendships, especially that between Call and McCrae. The old relationships in this wonderful book feel old, and the whole treatment yields an uncanny feeling while reading, a feeling very few writers can conjure: the feeling that you’re only being reminded of some old familiar story you’ve known all your life, rather than told a new one with art and artifice. And three of the book’s many endings will positively choke you up, if you’ve got an ounce of reading feeling in your bones. The Sacramento Bee lauded this book as “engrossing” – and so will you.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon – It’s almost a delirious realization, that Bantam Books not only issued this genre-bending, mind-expanding novel as a mass market paperback in 1974 but that you could find it in the metal spinner-racks in thousands of non-bookstore venues back then: gas stations (with spotty clerks getting boxes of book-stock from the big city and stuffing the items into their slots, perhaps without a second glance – except for those one or two clerks who did look, and maybe had their lives changed as a result), drug stores, and commuter train platforms. In all these places, you could spin those cranky, squeaking displays and see Valley of the Dolls in one slot, Conan the Freebooter in another, and Gravity’s blooming Rainbow in the third – it’s very tempting to say such days are over in the modern world. Pynchon’s huge novel has almost as many characters and plot-strands as McMurtry’s, but there’s no sentimentality here and vast amounts of formalistic experimentation – this is a thinking man’s Ulysses, a fun-house mirror version of a WWII novel, studded with magnificent set pieces (at least two of which are consciously designed to revolt you into simply putting the book down, if they’re able to do it – testing set-pieces, as it were, as brilliant as anything 20th Century fiction has ever produced). The Atlantic Monthly called it “engrossing” – and so will you.
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin – The fantasy elements lurking in the shadows of Gravity’s Rainbow take center stage in Helprin’s massive, bestselling book about a valorous, quick-witted young man named Peter Lake and the magnificent white horse he finds (and who finds him), and also about dozens of other characters, from boisterous arch-criminals to consumptive ice princesses to deluded priests, all working under one kind of doom or another. The setting – during the infrequent intervals in which it descends into the pragmatic, observable world, is a roughly 19th Century New York City of warring gangs and street vendors and falling snow, but the key to the book’s artistic success (and, almost certainly, the explanation for its almost talismanic power among its many, many devotees)(everybody I know who’s read this book has read it more than once) is its unabashed willingness to inhabit its own mythology. The characters achieve their memorable reality solely through their interactions with each other, and that makes the whole thing feel like a walled-off fairy kingdom (and it’s no coincidence that Manhattan itself is often portrayed that way in the book). The Book-of-the-Month Club (back when that organization commanded some genuine respect in the reading world)(as delightfully detailed in Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books) called it “engrossing” – and so will you.
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Alan Gurganus – Lucy Marsden, the 99-year-old North Carolina widow of this boisterous, hilarious book’s title, married her grim and much-older husband Captain Will Marsden a long, long time ago, and as our narrative opens, she’s fixed on telling the whole vast history of her life, from the small-town urban legends to the shot and gore of the Civil War battlefield to the steamy and folksy atmosphere of the modern South. Gurganus worked forever on this huge book (like so many authors of novels longer than 260 pages, he often remarked that it almost killed him), and he’s produced virtually nothing (and certainly nothing comparable) since. Partly this is understandable, since there’s a lifetime’s worth of stories in these pages, some of them sordid (when a black character happens into one such scene, she utters the two words, “White people,” with a whole world of knowing scorn), some of them heroic, some of them pathetic, and all of them rendered in prose so sharp and knowing that the end result can take its place alongside Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it all “engrossing” – and so will you.
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay – This rough, at times brutal story of a white boy nicknamed Peekay growing to manhood in WWII-era South Africa is far and away Courtenay’s masterpiece (and as is sometimes the case, it was his debut), an altogether amazing fictional representation of a dirty, divisive world and the difficulty (but not impossibility) of finding some kind of nobility even in such a setting. South Africa’s Apartheid regime inspired a number of such works, but this one is the best of a very good bunch, taking some of the classic elements of a boy’s coming-of-age story (young Peekay is rather badly in need of father figures) and mixing them with repressed folklore and the kind of sublimated warrior-ethos some people (sedentary writers foremost among them) tend to find in the ‘sport’ of boxing. The story is narrated by Peekay from the vantage point of his later life (also a familiar motif of this kind of novel, as though all these writers were already dreaming of apartheid being ‘once upon a time’), and the tale he tells builds steadily in power to its fast, violent climax. The fabled Los Angeles Times Book Review called it “totally engrossing” – and so will you.
These six titles – snapped up in less than two minutes – are just the kind of book that marries entertainment with enlightenment, the kind that both instruct and delight, all in fine condition, just waiting for somebody to come along who’s perhaps been disappointed one too many times by contemporary fiction. I’ve been vigorously recommending these books (and about twenty more just like them) for a long time now, because their qualities never fade or go out of style. And there they were, lodged among the cracked-spine murder mysteries an dust-jacketed (but untouched) copies of Freedom, ready to form a good solid foundation. One of the many wonders libraries perform, of course.