Thomas Pluck picks five novels that you shouldn’t miss.
You read, don’t you? You’re reading this. But I mean fiction, of course. We read the news to keep informed, but stories inform our subconscious, and the best of them decode the zeitgeist and move us on a deeper level. Speaking with a coworker, he told me he had no time to read. The same guy has an exercycle in the basement doing double duty as a coat hanger, because he doesn’t have time for that, either. But we would chide him for not exercising his body. What about exercising the brain?
One study shows that reading about an activity stimulates the same parts of the brain as actually doing it; reading stories also teaches us how to be more empathic and human. So don’t be a slacker. Exercise your brain. Here are five authors to get you started:
Frank Bill takes us on a savage tour of the hell behind the heartland. His debut novel Donnybrookis a rip-roaring ride following a bare-knuckle fighter making his way to an infamous three-day brawl for a big payout, with two brutal meth dealers and a hard-as-nails kung fu assassin on his tail. Between all that action, Bill gives us a heartfelt rendition of southern Indiana rent by poverty and the lure of easy money in meth labs, peopled with characters like Chainsaw Angus and Jarhead, the toughest fighter in eastern Kentucky. There’s barely a moment to breathe, and when it’s over, you’re wishing for the next book. Thankfully, Bill’s collection Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories is just as good, bringing us into his characters’ lives as they ponder terrible choices that will define or destroy them. Bill is relatively new, but writes entertaining tales with great power, that border on newfound American myth.
Glenn G. Gray is a doctor in private practice who also writes some of the funniest and most disturbing stories I’ve ever encountered. Fans of Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) may be familiar with his infamous story “Guts.” It is claimed that people pass out when Palahniuk reads that story. Glenn Gray’s stories haven’t made me pass out, but they have made me schedule that physical I’ve been avoiding. In his collection The Little Boy Inside and Other Stories, Gray introduces us to men betrayed, obsessed, and at war with their own flesh and blood, terrified by the changes they find themselves inexplicably undergoing. A man trying to escape a relationship finds himself growing into his marriage bed. Another with body dysmorphia injects his already grotesque muscles with gallons of synthol. And others just want to chase the dreams they’ve been told they deserve, only to find the world has other plans. Some of these stories make you see your own body as an alien planet, a fathomless monstrosity bent on killing you, and you realize that our knowledge of our own bodies is only as detailed and artificial as a yellow and blue-lined road atlas; the human body is still being explored, and we may never fully understand it.
Megan Abbott writes about the darkness inside women that most fiction avoids talking about. Perhaps you’ve heard of Alisa Nutting’s novel Tampa, which follows a female teacher who serially abuses her students, or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which explores psychopathy in both sexes. Neither are nearly plumb the depths of the human heart the way Dare Me, Abbot’s novel of competitive cheerleading, does. Her young women are brutally ambitious A-personalities that we normally only see portrayed as men. It is a refreshing and gripping look into what our culture tends to avoid or blow off as humorous. Dare Me introduces us to Addy and Beth, two cheerleaders who war and spar in their own ways with a new coach, who promises to drive them to the finals or see them die trying. Her previous novel The End of Everything is perhaps even darker as it plumbs the need to be loved and how children learn from their parents. Both have a palpable intensity and take us on ride-alongs to visit characters at their most desperate, where all is laid bare.
Mat Johnson wrote one of the most hilarious and painful books I’ve ever read. That book is Pym, where he takes the notoriously racist Edgar Allan Poe novella “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” and flips it on its head when African-American literature professor Chris Jaynes stumbles upon proof that the story is based on true events. Johnson is a master satirist, and this adventure story about a shipful of explorers seeking an island where the “even the natives’ teeth are black” and instead stumbling on the supervillain lair of a painter who has made a billion-dollar empire out of painting kitsch, and discovering a race of albino yeti who may be the whitest creatures on the planet had me laughing aloud. But it also made it possible, in small moments, for me to understand what it might be like to be compared to what our culture considers base, savage, and vile. The book also explores what it means to be a middle class man, when we are more likely to be taken down by trans fats in a snack cake or our own misbehavior than let’s say, a killer yeti wielding an ice spear, but this read works on all levels, and the story and its characters are so good, I wished that it was possible that we’d see a movie of it in my lifetime. Which I am sad to say, is probably not going to happen. If you aren’t yet sure you want to dive into Pym, follow Mat_Johnson on Twitter for a taste of what you’re in for.
Daniel Woodrell may need no introduction. His novels Winter’s Bone and Woe to Live On (Ride with the Devil) have been made into popular films, and his latest, The Maid’s Version, has met critical acclaim. Woodrell writes about where he lives, the small towns of the Ozark mountains in Missouri. He writes with the artistic efficiency of poetry but without artifice, and knows exactly where to begin and end a tale. The rage of class–the inequality that dare not speak its name–begins and ends his collection The Outlaw Album, which contains 12 tales of people who’ve lost something and try to find out what it was, how to get it back, or how it was stolen from them. His stories bring you to a place in the mind. I’ve never been to the Ozarks, but I felt like I drove through, stopped for a slice of pie and chatted up a lifelong local who told me the tales of the town that form its mythology, so I could understand the strong bonds of family and place that define the people who live there.
Winter’s Bone is even stronger in this regard. It follows the young heroine Ree Dolly as she hunts her missing father, who jumped bail and left their home as bond. Ree is tough as they come, but it was her Uncle Teardrop (so named for the tattoo) who intrigued me. He walks out of his own myth, a dangerous figure whose intentions and principles become clear as they put him at odds with himself. He wants to help his niece, but knows finding the answer she seeks may lead him to his own self-destruction. Yet he does it anyway. Either of these are a great start. Or you can grab The Maid’s Version, which may tell the truth about the 1928 West Plains Dance Hall explosion, which killed 37 people, for the first time.
That should be enough to keep your brain exercised for a good while. What new authors do you think speak especially well to men?