Well, of course, these have been featured here before over the years in this space, but someone asked me to assemble a list of authors and books I'd recommend to someone looking for a novel that was both a pleasure to read and satisfied the measures required of being "Literary" . What is meant by the last word in quotation marks is brutally subjective, and perhaps we'll leave it for a future discussion, if not one of my caffeinated and barely comprehensible manifestos, ie, rants. In the meantime, three authors, three books that I enjoyed to a major degree. I hope some of you might read them and find pleasure as well.
THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta
.I am inclined to agree that the HBO production was one of the best TV series in recent memory, but the novel by Tom Perrotta is no less brilliant, perplexing, comic and able to undermine a reader's sense of metaphysical sure-footedness. Perrotta is a cross between Don DeLillo and John Cheever, someone who brings weirdness into the suburbs and small towns and has us observe how oddly things come unglued. The plot here centers around a small, Cheeveresque suburb, but the difference is that these townsfolk, like the rest of the world, is trying to deal with the unthinkable fact that a quarter of the world's population has vanished, gone, literally into thin air, rapture-like. This is about how the folks try to reconstruct their daily routines both in personal lives in social structures and how different groups come to interpret that event which is, by its nature, sealed off from interpretation.
THE BIG IF by Mark Costello
First, this author isn't to be confused with another fiction writer named Mark Costello, who is the author of two brilliant collections of short stories called The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy. Those books, a series of related tales involving the title character, is a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a generation growing up in Illinois, and it is one of the most beautifully written sagas of dysfunction, alcoholism, and despair I've ever come across. This Costello does things with the language that take up where prime period John Cheever or John Updike left off and offer up a virtuoso prose only a handful of lyric writers achieve; it is the brilliance and beauty of the writing that makes the unrelieved depressive atmosphere of the two books transcend their own grimness. The prose in these two books demonstrates the sloppier pretender Rick Moody cannot help but seem. Buy these books and experience a devastating joy.The other mark Costello, a younger writer, has equal genius but a different approach to the world, and his novel Big If is quite good, and what makes it works is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired, and the other is with the rich detailing of the other secret service agents who work with Vi Asplund. There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rational, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect they're protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field. Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details, his comic touches, A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex-husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness. A fine book.
CRACKPOTS by Sara Pritchard
Brief, beautifully written book about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot-button stuff engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as a prose stylist.