Touchstones: Seven novels that carry weight
English writer Graham Greene used to divide his literary works into entertainments, which we might call thrillers, and novels, which he regarded as his more serious books.
Many of us who read fiction make a similar division. We go to some books and authors primarily for pleasure. An example: Whenever a new novel by James Lee Burke or Stephen Hunter hits the bookstores, my heart leaps at the idea of a weekend spent following detective Dave Robicheaux or sniper Bob Lee Swagger. Only a month later, the plots and secondary characters of these stories have vanished from my mind: I live in these pages for the pure pleasure of the moment. These are my popcorn books, my comfort books, the books I read for momentary diversion or delight.
Other novels, far fewer in number, work a different sort of magic on us. Their characters and words enter into us and become a part of our interior landscape, helping to shape our souls and changing the way we engage the world. To these stories we return again and again as if seeking the advice of an old friend, desirous of reassurance and inspiration.
The seven novels below, all written by male authors, have brought great gifts to me over the past 20 years. Other books belong on this list as well, but I have limited my choices to these seven twentieth century novels. They are arranged here in no particular order. In my next review, I will run a similar list of female authors.
Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers
Considered by many to be Burgess’ masterpiece, this weighty book is narrated by John Marchal Toomey — a writer, a homosexual, and a man who witnesses many of the evils of the twentieth century. Packed with action ranging from the Far East to Nazi Germany, Earthly Powers examines religion, sex, politics, and morality. Both brightly comedic and deadly serious, Earthly Powers shows Burgess at the height of his own earthly powers. Several times every year, I return to this book for its stunning prose, its take on the fallen state of humankind, and its reminder that love comes to us in many different shapes and forms.
Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War
Born into a wealthy Roman family, Alessandro Giulliani finds his idyllic youth shattered by World War I. We first meet him half a century later when Alessandro, a retired professor of aesthetics, shares the story of his life with a young industrial worker. Every time I peruse A Soldier of the Great War, which is about once a week, I am reminded of the value of behaving nobly and bravely in dire circumstances and of the beauty of the world around me. I keep several copies of this book on-hand to give to young men who have need of it.
John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts
Peter J. Mickelsson, professor of philosophy, is in trouble. He drinks too much, he is divorced and broke, the IRS is after him, he is entangled with a prostitute, he accidentally kills a man, the house in which he lives is haunted, and he himself is haunted by such luminaries as Luther and Nietzsche. When my life seems whirling out of control, Mickelsson’s Ghosts has often offered me laughter and solace.
Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair
Maurice Bendrix, author and cynic, falls in love with Sarah Miles, wife of a high-ranking civil servant. When Sarah unaccountably breaks off their affair, Bendrix, driven by jealousy and hatred, digs deep into Sarah’s troubled past and mysterious present. In recounting the way so many of us bumble about in our religious faith and in using the atheist Bendrix as his foil, Greene peers deeply into the human heart, love, and faith.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Of the books listed here, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has had the longest run in my life. In my 20s, I read and reread it so much that I memorized some of the passages. For the last 10 years, I have taught Gatsby to Advanced Placement Literature classes. With every reading, I discover something new or draw a fresh lesson from Gatsby’s life. Lately, I have wondered whether Fitzgerald isn’t telling us that the things we want most in life may be the very things that kill us.
Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove
This saga of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, headed up by former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, features a host of memorable characters and the hardships of the trail: storms, floods, outlaws, Indians. Lonesome Dove gives us good men and bad men, and a few men who are truly evil. When I want to put a little grit in my backbone, I travel to Lonesome Dove and hit the trail with Gus and Call.
Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle
Back in my 20s, I read this story of Sam Damon’s rise through the ranks in the Army from World War I to Vietnam. I became so enamored of the book — and Myrer’s other books — that I began a brief correspondence with him. He was kind enough to autograph copies of three of his books that I mailed to him. In Once An Eagle, he wrote: “For Jeffrey Minick — Writer — and friend, who has discovered where the real battle lies … Anton Myrer.” To be frank, I didn’t know what he meant by “the real battle,” and he died before I could ask him, but Myrer himself clearly believed that the real battle lies within the light and darkness of the human heart. Sam Damon serves as my example of a man who learns the gritty lessons of leadership and the need to resist our enemies not only on foreign battlefields, but here at home as well.
Composing this list has revealed to me the value I place on certain virtues, virtues which I may not always practice, but which I cherish. These books also help explain me to myself and remind me of the possibilities in my life.
Drawing up such a list made for an interesting and revealing experiment. If you are a reader of fiction, I encourage you to try it yourself. Jot down those books that shine in your life, and consider what you have taken from them.