Four Modern Novels (Almost) Everyone Should Read
We are entering the third phase of cultural barbarism. The first phase occurred when we began to abandon the knowledge of our literary heritage, and the second when we abandoned the literature that assumed that knowledge. The phase we are in now is one in which our literature is untethered from much of anything except itself. We are cultural barbarians who don’t know what these writings are even for, so we employ them as kindling to stoke the fires of our ignorance.
Yet, in this wasteland, there are still a few writers and a few books that stand out as oases in a desert. Generally speaking, the writers I am thinking of here are those who either make us confront the consequences of our cultural abandonment or who are actually lampooning our folly in discarding our own tradition.
Among the authors most remarked upon of this first type is Cormac McCarthy. A lot has been written about McCarthy’s nihilism, but to call him a nihilist is, I think, too simple. I wonder, when I am reading him, whether--rather than arguing that we live in a godless world--he is simply showing us what a godless world would be like. I wonder if maybe he is telling us cautionary tales that are meant to wake us from our cultural slumbers.
His most popular story is probably No Country for Old Men—and this largely because of the movie. But his finest work is widely acknowledged to be Blood Meridian: The Evening Redness in the West. It is not for the faint of heart. It is godless conquest of Canaan. There is blood and violence, and the most frightening part about it is that these things are not dwelt upon or overdramatized. Like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, bloody events are related bloodlessly. They are treated as events like other events which follow, one upon another, in meaningless chronology. It is part of McCarthy’s invocation of moral chaos, his upside-down Ceremony of Innocence.
Literary critic Harold Bloom calls the frightening figure of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, “a villain worthy of Shakespeare,” and the book “a canonical imaginative achievement.” And McCarthy himself Bloom thinks is “the worthy disciple of both Melville and of Faulkner.”
Someone has called McCarthy “an inverted Walker Percy.” I’m not sure I agree, but, in any case, mentioning it gives me the excuse to talk about the Catholic author of The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and Lost in the Cosmos, who may be the most representative writer of the second type: the satirist. Percy wrote that a modern novelist must necessarily be diagnostic in his writing, but he goes way beyond diagnosis in his send-ups of the absurdity of contemporary thought and life.
Love in the Ruins in particular is a clever and hilarious story about a psychiatrist who develops a device (the “Ontological Lapsometer”) that detects and cures the socially destructive spiritual maladies in his patients. Unfortunately, it has bizarre effects on the surrounding physical landscape and, when the government confiscates it to put it to its own uses, he goes into hiding and prepares for the Apocalypse--with two women, a gun, and a room full of Early Times 354 bourbon. The book’s subtitle (not printed on most editions) is “The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.” Its worthy sequel is The Thanatos Syndrome.
Lost in the Cosmos is his diagnostic non-fiction analysis of modern life and thought that is presented as “The Last Self-Help Book” (its subtitle). And, indeed, you will never be able to read a real self-help book again after you have ready Percy’s fake one. Because of its question and answer structure, you can only read it in short sections, but it underscores the fact that Percy was one of our great social critics.
My third author is one whom I never would have thought to read until, somehow, I happened upon him. But he is neither a clinician nor a satirist. James Lee Burke is one of America’s most prolific and best-selling authors--which is usually sufficient reason to avoid a writer. But who would have thought that one of our great modern writers was hiding right there in plain sight?
Burke, a devout Catholic, has written two series: the Dave Robicheaux mystery novels and the Holland family novels. Robicheaux (pronounced “Row’-bih-show’”) is a former New Orleans police detective who runs a boat rental and shrimp shop on the banks of Bayou Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. Like almost all of Burke’s protagonists, Robicheaux is haunted by alcohol and tempted by violence. He is constantly in a fight to stay off the bottle and reacts recklessly to threats to his, his friend’s, or his family’s safety. In short, he’s a sinner.
But he is well aware of his own condition, and his battles are just as often with himself as with the criminals and gangsters who populate his life. His stories have been called “morality plays about a world which is, in his words, ‘intransigent, corrupt, a place where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal.’” In fact, Biblical metaphors are just the beginning. Biblical and classical imagery and theological themes suffuse his stories.
Robicheaux, says Burke, is based on the Everyman in medieval dramas and on the Good Knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “I believe the central theme in all of Occidental literature is about the search for salvation. It is the basic theme of Western literature. It’s what we all end up painting, acting out in dramas, or writing about ... The stories I’ve written are the Passion Play, I mean they clearly come out of the New Testament.”
And these themes extend to his Holland family novels which are about a line of Texas lawmen from the late 19th century to the present who, like Robicheaux, are flawed crusaders who spend as much time fighting the demons that haunt them as the dragons that threaten others.
Like both McCarthy and Percy, Burke’s novels are not for the faint of heart. They are gritty, explicit, and they do not blink in showing what Burke sees as the reality of the world. But in the midst of the evil and the violence, there is love and redemption, like lilies in the mud. And because his later novels are more explicitly Biblical, it is best to start with them in order to get a perspective on his earlier novels in which these themes are buried deeper.
The best place to start is Wayfaring Stranger, about Weldon Holland, grandson of Hackberry. Then perhaps Cimmaron Rose (Billy Bob Holland). Then Rain Gods (Hackberry the younger). In the Robicheaux series, a good place to start is Heaven’s Prisoners. These books will devastate you with their dangerous beauty.
Finally, Joseph Epstein, our greatest living English essayist, was once asked which modern writer people would still be reading in a hundred years. His answer? Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer (who died in 1988) wrote in Yiddish and oversaw the translations of his books into English. He was a living Jacob, always seeming to be in a wresting match with God. His book Shadows on the Hudson is a masterpiece about a community of post-Holocaust Jews in New York. His protagonist Hertz Grein struggles violently with his sins against a God, in whom he professes not to believe in a book whose theme is how it is possible to contend with sin in a sinful world. The letter he writes at the end to his friends from an Israeli commune after giving up on the world is something everyone interested in the question of the meaning of life should read.