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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Favorite Authors, Part 2

4. Philip Roth, the handsome devil pictured above. I've only read seven of Roth's novels, less than a quarter of his remarkable output, but each was a great read. Roth is often chided for the repetitiveness of his storylines, featuring the invariable Jewish protagonist, the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, occasionally repulsive and graphic sexuality, and at times an unabashedly liberal viewpoint. But Roth is capable of such great humor and insight that you don't mind hearing the same backstory over and over again.

What should you read?: American Pastoral is an unassailable masterwork, a portrait of American values and the decline thereof set against the turbulent 1960s. I Married A Communist is an intriguing exploration of McCarthyism, and The Great American Novel is a comic ode to baseball, which any fan will appreciate. If you're prudish, I'd stay the hell away from Portnoy's Complaint, which is incredibly filthy in the most literate way possible.

5. Richard Russo. I've read four of Russo's novels and a collection of his short stories. Russo is adept at spinning a multifaceted narrative full of memorable and yet entirely believable characters. The influence of Dickens is obvious and appreciated in an era when too many books are more interested in style than story. Russo knows small-town Northeast America well, and his novels capture it entirely.

What should you read?: Any of his novels would make a fine starting point, but I can not recommend the short stories to anyone but the most ardent of completists. Russo is best when he is expansive, filling in what many would consider the unnecessary details that make his work so rich. That sense is lost in most of his stories. Empire Falls is the best known of his novels because it won the Pulitzer, which it fully deserves, but I like Nobody's Fool just a bit more. It's the story of an injured and aging laborer dealing with his ex-wife, the married woman he's been seeing for over a decade, the son he practically abandoned and about a thousand other details that combine to make for one raucous and enjoyable ride.

6. John Irving. Another writer who wears his allegiance to Dickens on his sleeve. I've read seven Irving novels, and while they are not without their flaws I have enjoyed six of them very much. Irving is great at constructing elaborate situations and memorable set pieces. He gives his characters unique backgrounds and traits and throws them all together in grand style. Irving is chastised for his over-reliance of quirkiness and sexual deviance (transvestites and other unsavory proclivities recur frequently) but he has found a niche that works for him, and his stories are usually pretty damn entertaining.

What should you read?: Everyone should read The World According to Garp, which is a truly great novel that even Irving's foremost critics recognize as such. The Hotel New Hampshire is a fun book, although it contains one of the more unfortunate passages in literary history, and The Cider House Rules is good so long as you don't mind a book taking an unapologetic pro-choice stance. The only Irving novel I didn't enjoy was A Son of the Circus, which is over-long, and fails to convince the reader that Irving actually knows anything about India.

Okay, four more to go, but I'll have to finish this in part three. Stay tuned, because I know you're all eagerly awaiting the exciting conclusion. Right?

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