Top 25 American Novels as chosen by Andrew Cattanach and John Purcell: Happy 4th of July

by |July 4, 2013

To celebrate the 4th of July, John and Andrew dusted off some of their favourite books and came up with their Top 25 American Novels.

This is in no order, and we’re not competitive, but we’d love you to tell us where you think we went wrong!

Enjoy!


John’s 25 Favourite American Novels

– In No Particular Order


Main Street

by Sinclair Lewis

The first of Sinclair Lewis’s great successes, Main Street shattered the sentimental American myth of happy small-town life with its satire of narrow-minded provincialism. Reflecting his own unhappy childhood in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis’s sixth novel attacked the conformity and dullness he saw in midwestern village life.

BUY


Breakfast of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut

In a frolic of cartoons and comic outbursts against rule and reason, Kurt Vonnegut attacks the whole spectrum of American society, releasing some of his best-loved literary creations on the scene.

BUY


The Garden of Eden

by Ernest Hemingway

A sensational bestseller when it appeared in 1986, “The Garden of Eden” is the last uncompleted novel of Ernest Hemingway, which he worked on intermittently from 1946 until his death in 1961. Set on the Cote d’Azur in the 1920s, it is the story of a young American writer, David Bourne, his glamorous wife, Catherine, and the dangerous, erotic game they play when they fall in love with the same woman.

BUY


Short Cuts

by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver masters the art of effective story telling in this poignant collection of fictional short stories and one poem. He artfully demonstrates a twist on the proverb, “Nothing in life is free,” as his characters reveal that “short cuts” don’t exist: short cuts are actually dead ends and rotaries disguised as easy exits. Carver’s stories, though seemingly simple, illustrate the intricacies of human relationships, the complicated grids that bind and sever us.

(Andrew: Ummm… John, these are short stories)

BUY


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert M. Pirsig

One of the most important and influential books of the past half-century, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a powerful, moving, and penetrating examination of how we live and a meditation on how to live better. The narrative of a father on a summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest with his young son, it becomes a profound personal and philosophical odyssey into life’s fundamental questions.

BUY


Stranger in a Strange Land

by Robert A. Heinlein

Valentine Michael Smith, born and raised on Mars, arrives on Earth stunning Western culture with his superhuman abilities.

BUY


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

by Anita Loos

If any American fictional character of the twentieth century seems likely to be immortal, it is Lorelei Lee of Little Rock, Arkansas, the not-so-dumb blonde who knew that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Outrageous, charming, and unforgettable, she’s been portrayed on stage and screen by Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe and has become the archetype of the footloose, good-hearted gold digger, with an insatiable appetite for orchids, champagne, and precious stones.

BUY


Ethan Frome

by Edith Wharton

One of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Ethan Frome tells a story of ill-starred lovers and their tragic destinies.

Ethan works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious, and hypochondriac wife, Zeenie. But when Zeenie’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.

BUY


Kleinzeit

by Russell Hoban

On a day like any other, Kleinzeit gets fired. Hours later, he finds himself in hospital with a pair of adventurous pyjamas and a recurring geometrical pain. Here, he falls instantly in love with a beautiful night nurse called Sister. And together they are pitched headlong into a wild and flickering world of mystery Kleinzeit. In German that means ‘hero’, or ‘smalltime’. It depends on whom you ask. ‘Russell Hoban is our Ur-novelist, a maverick voice that is like no other’ – “Sunday Telegraph”.


Death Comes for the Archbishop

by Willa Cather

In 1851 Bishop Latour and his friend Father Valliant are despatched to New Mexico to reawaken its slumbering Catholicism. Moving along the endless prairies, Latour spreads his faith the only way he knows – gently, although he must contend with the unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. Over nearly forty years, they leave converts and enemies, crosses and occasionally ecstasy in their wake. But it takes a death for them to make their mark on the landscape forever …

BUY


Winesburg, Ohio

by Sherwood Anderson

Portraying the characters and events of a small Midwestern town at the end of the nineteenth century, Winesburg, Ohio is a chronological cycle of stories which reads like an episodic novel. Centring on George Willard, a young local reporter with big-city aspirations, and his conversations with fellow inhabitants, the book gives voice to a disparate cast of figures and lays bare the constraints and struggles of life in a small community.

BUY


The Talented Mr Ripley

by Patricia Highsmith

Since his debut in 1955, Tom Ripley has evolved into the ultimate bad boy sociopath, influencing countless novelists and filmmakers. In this first novel, we are introduced to suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s. A product of a broken home, branded a “sissy” by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf.

BUY


The Awakening

by Kate Chopin

Heralded as one of the first instances of feminist literature and rejected at its time of publication by the literary set on grounds of moral distaste, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening caused consternation in 1899. Constrained and confined by the limitations surrounding marriage and motherhood in the late 1800s, Edna Pontellier begins to challenge the notion of femininity through her thoughts and actions.

BUY


A Tramp Abroad

by Mark Twain

Not a novel but not the whole truth either, Twain’s account of travelling in Europe, sparkles with the author’s shrewd observations and highly opinionated comments on Old World culture and showcases his unparalleled ability to integrate humorous sketches, autobiographical tidbits, and historical anecdotes in a consistently entertaining narrative.

(John: Before you say anything, Andrew, this not a novel but it’s not the whole truth either, so it’s in!)

BUY


Atlas Shrugged

by Ayn Rand

“Who is John Galt?” is the immortal question posed at the beginning of Ayn Rand’s masterpiece.

The answer is the astonishing story of a man who said he would stop the motor of the world and did. As passionate as it is profound, “Atlas Shrugged” is one of the most influential novels of our time. Part mystery, part thriller, part philosophical inquiry, part volatile love affair, “Atlas Shrugged” is the book that confirmed Ayn Rand as one of the most popular novelist and most respected thinkers of the 20th century.

BUY


The Age of Innocence

by Edith Wharton

Newland Archer and May Welland are the perfect couple. He is a wealthy young lawyer and she is a lovely and sweet-natured girl. All seems set for success until the arrival of May’s unconventional cousin Ellen Olenska, who returns from Europe without her husband and proceeds to shake up polite New York society. To Newland, she is a breath of fresh air and a free spirit, but the bond that develops between them throws his values into confusion and threatens his relationship with May.

BUY


An American Tragedy

by Theodore Dreiser

A tremendous bestseller when it was published in 1925, “An American Tragedy” is the culmination of Theodore Dreiser’s elementally powerful fictional art.

Taking as his point of departure a notorious murder case of 1910, Dreiser immersed himself in the social background of the crime to produce a book that is both a remarkable work of reportage and a monumental study of character. Few novels have undertaken to track so relentlessly the process by which an ordinary young man becomes capable of committing a ruthless murder, and the further process by which social and political forces come into play after his arrest.

BUY


Sanctuary

by William Faulkner

An assortment of perverse characters act out this dramatic story of the kidnapping of a Mississippi debutante.

BUY


The World According To Garp

by John Irving

Like all extraordinary books, The World According to Garp defies synopsis’, wrote the Chicago Sun Times when Garp was first published in 1978. It is a marvellous, important, permanent novel by a serious artist of remarkable powers. Garp is a book that captivates all who read it. Peopled with the most extraordinary characters you will ever meet, here is a novel that will make you laugh, make you weep, and, above all, make you think.

BUY


The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady is an intensely moving masterpiece on the destructive power of love, and features Henry James’s most magnificent literary heroine.

Isabel Archer, a wealthy, beautiful and spirited American, is expected to marry when she travels to Europe with her aunt. But Isabel is resolved to enjoy the freedom that her wealth brings, and must somehow choose between suitors who may all be hiding sickeningly different motives behind their avowals of love.

BUY


sexusSexus

by Henry Miller

The first novel of Miller’s frank, autobiographical trilogy uses dream, fantasy, and burlesque to portray the life of a struggling writer in pre-World War II New York

BUY


The Thin Red Line

by James Jones

They are the men of C-for-Charlie Company–“Mad” 1st/Sgt. Eddie Welsh, S/Sgt. Don Doll, Pvt. John Bell, Capt. James Stein, Cpl. Fife, and dozens more just like them–infantrymen in “this man’s army” who are about to land grim and white-faced on an atoll in the Pacific called Guadalcanal. This is their story, a shatteringly realistic walk into hell and back.
In the days ahead some will earn medals; others will do anything they can dream up to get evacuated before they land in a muddy grave. But they will all discover the thin red line that divides the sane from the mad–and the living from the dead–in this unforgettable portrait that captures for all time the total experience of men at war.

BUY


Three Lives

by Gertrude Stein

First published in 1909, Three Lives marks the beginning of an era of bold experimentation with literary form and language that has continued throughout our century.

In these three stories, Gertrude Stein put into practice certain theories about prose composition that paralleled the ideas expressed in the art of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. Her characters strike the reader as living in a world determined by an aesthetic rather than a social order.

BUY


The Yellow Wall-Paper

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Enjoy 7 thought-provoking stories that employ charm and humor to examine relations between the sexes from a feminist perspective. In addition to the title story, an 1892 classic that recounts a woman’s descent into madness, this collection includes such masterful stories as “Cottagette,” “Turned,” “Mr. Peebles’ Heart,” and more.

BUY


catch-22Catch-22

by Joseph Heller

Set in the closing months of World War II in an American bomber squadron off the coast of Italy, Catch-22 is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never even met keep trying to kill him. Joseph Heller’s bestselling novel is a hilarious and tragic satire on military madness, and the tale of one man’s efforts to survive it.

BUY


Andrew’s 25 Favourite American Novels

– In No Particular Order


Bright Lights, Big City

by Jay McInerney

With the publication of Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, Jay McInerney became a literary sensation, heralded as the voice of a generation. The novel follows a young man, living in Manhattan as if he owned it, through nightclubs, fashion shows, editorial offices, and loft parties as he attempts to outstrip mortality and the recurring approach of dawn.

BUY


Less Than Zero

by Bret Easton Ellis

In 1985, Bret Easton Ellis shocked, stunned and disturbed with his debut novel, Less Than Zero. Published when he was just twenty-one, this extraordinary and instantly infamous work has done more than simply define a genre, it has become a rare thing: a cult classic and a timeless embodiment of the zeitgeist. It continues to be a landmark in the lives of successive generations of readers across the globe.

BUY


Blood Meridian

by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian is an epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West. Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into a nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.

BUY


The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

“The Bell Jar” chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made “The Bell Jar” a haunting American classic.

BUY


Moby Dick

by Herman Melville

The crew of the whaling ship the Pequod is bound by its Captain Ahab to a single, bloody goal: the killing of the whale Moby-Dick, the giant albino that has taken his leg and on which he has sworn vengeance. Driven, perhaps doomed, by his dangerous monomania, they sail in pursuit of the monster. Moby-Dick is the greatest novel of the sea ever written and one of the most expansive feats of imagination in fiction. Melville unforgettably crews the Pequod, and at the book’s mad, raging heart, Ahab’s quest for the white whale is one of the most powerful symbols in literature.

BUY


The Old Man And The Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

Set in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Havana, Hemingway’s magnificent fable is the story of an old man, a young boy and a giant fish. It was The Old Man And The Sea that won for Hemingway the Nobel Prize of Literature. Here, in a perfectly crafted story is a unique and timeless vision of the beauty and grief of a man’s challenge to the elements in which he lives.

BUY


As I Lay Dying

by William Faulkner

Successive episodes in the death and burial of Addie Bundren are recounted by various members of the family circle, principally as they are carting their mother’s coffin to Jefferson, Mississippi, in order to bury her among her people. As the desires and fears and rivalries of the family are revealed in the vernacular speech of the South, the author builds up an impression as epic as the old Testament, as earthly and comic as Chaucer.

BUY


Portnoy’s Complaint

by Philip Roth

Award-winning author Philip Roth has made a career of confronting the heartbreaking dissolution of relationships, the absurdity of sexual neuroses, and the downside of his own literary fame. This is the famous confession of Alexander Portnoy’s who is thrust through life by his unappeasable sexuality, yet held back at the same time by the iron grip of his unforgettable childhood.

BUY


To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behaviour-to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humour and pathos.

BUY


A Scanner Darkly

by Philip K. Dick

Substance D – otherwise known as Death – is the most dangerous drug ever to find its way on to the black market. It destroys the links between the brain’s two hemispheres, leading first to disorentation and then to complete and irreversible brain damage. Bob Arctor, undercover narcotics agent, is trying to find a lead to the source of supply, but to pass as an addict he must become a user and soon, without knowing what is happening to him, he is as dependent as any of the addicts he is monitoring.

BUY


Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America Set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are.

BUY


The Jungle

by Upton Sinclair

The 1906 bestseller shockingly reveals intolerable labor practices and unsanitary working conditions in the Chicago stockyards as it tells the brutally grim story of a Slavic family that emigrates to America full of optimism but soon descends into numbing poverty, moral degradation, and despair. A fiercely realistic American classic that will haunt readers long after they’ve finished the last page.

BUY


Tinkers

by Paul Harding

An old man lies dying. As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is reunited with his father and relives the wonder and pain of his impoverished New England youth. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, Tinkers is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature.

BUY


Gravity’s Rainbow

by Thomas Pynchon

Soon Tyrone is on the run from legions of bizarre enemies through the phantasmagoric horrors of Germany. Gravity’s Rainbow, however, dosen’t follow such a standard plot; one must have faith that each manic episode is connected with the great plot to blow up the world with the ultimate rocket. There is not one story, but a proliferation of characters (Pirate Prentice, Teddy Bloat, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, Saure Bummer, and more) and events that tantalize the reader with suggestions of vast patterns only just past our comprehension.

BUY


Catch-22

by Joseph Heller

Set in the closing months of World War II in an American bomber squadron off the coast of Italy, Catch-22 is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never even met keep trying to kill him. Joseph Heller’s bestselling novel is a hilarious and tragic satire on military madness, and the tale of one man’s efforts to survive it.

BUY


A Confederacy of Dunces

by John Kennedy Toole

A monument to sloth, rant and contempt, a behemoth of fat, flatulence and furious suspicion of anything modern – this is Ignatius J. Reilly of New Orleans, noble crusader against a world of dunces. In magnificent revolt against the twentieth century, Igatius propels his monstrous bulk among the flesh -pots of a fallen city, filling his Big Chief tablets with invective, until his maroon-haired mother decrees that Igatius must go to work.

BUY


The Beautiful and Damned

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A tale of marriage and disappointment in the Roaring Twenties. Fitzgerald’s rich and detailed novel of the decadent Jazz Era follows the beautiful and vibrant Anthony Patch and his wife Gloria as they navigate the heady lifestyle of the young and wealthy in 1920s New York. Patch is the presumptive heir to his grandfather’s fortune, and keeps his equally spoiled wife in comfort while biding time until his grandfather’s death. Patch is unable to hold down any kind of job and spends his days in luxury, indulging in whatever pleasures are available. But as the money begins to fail, so does their marriage. Patch’s gradual descent into alcoholism, depression and alienation from his marriage ultimately lead to his ruin. Fitzgerald’s novel is a remorseless exploration of the horrors of an age of excess and lost innocence.

BUY


The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen

The Lamberts – Enid and Alfred and their three grown-up children – are a troubled family living in a troubled age. Alfred is ill and as his condition worsens the whole family must face the failures, secrets and long-buried hurts that haunt them if they are to make the corrections that each desperately needs. Stretching from the Midwest in the mid-century to Wall Street and Eastern Europe in the age of globalised greed, The Corrections brings an old-time America of freight trains and civic duty into wild collision with the era of home surveillance, hands-off parenting, do-it-yourself mental healthcare, and New Economy millionaires. It announces Jonathan Franzen as one of the most brilliant interpreters of American society and the American soul.

BUY


White Noise

by Don DeLillo

White Noise is an effortless combination of social satire and metaphysical dilemma in which DeLillo exposes our rampant consumerism, media saturation and novelty intellectualism. It captures the particular strangeness of life lived when the fear of death cannot be denied, repressed or obscured and ponders the role of the family in a time when the very meaning of our existence is under threat.

BUY


The Virgin Suicides

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Twenty years on, their enigmatic personalities are embalmed in the memories of the boys who worshipped them and who now recall their shared adolescence: the brassiere draped over a crucifix belonging to the promiscuous Lux; the sisters’ breathtaking appearance on the night of the dance; and the sultry, sleepy street across which they watched a family disintegrate and fragile lives disappear.

BUY


Last Exit to Brooklyn

by Hubert Selby Jr.

Few novels have caused as much controversy as Hubert Selby Jr.’s notorious masterpiece. Described by various reviewers as hellish and obscene, it tells the stories of New Yorkers who at every turn confront the worst excesses in human nature. Yet there are moments of exquisite tenderness in these troubled lives. Georgette, the transvestite who falls in love with a callous hoodlum; Tralala, the conniving prostitute who plumbs the depths of sexual degradation; and Harry, the strike leader who hides his true desires behind a boorish masculinity, are unforgettable creations.

BUY


The Talented Mr Ripley

by Patricia Highsmith

Since his debut in 1955, Tom Ripley has evolved into the ultimate bad boy sociopath, influencing countless novelists and filmmakers. In this first novel, we are introduced to suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s. A product of a broken home, branded a “sissy” by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf.

BUY


Women

by Charles Bukowski

Low-life writer and unrepentant alcoholic Henry Chinaski was born to survive. After decades of slacking off at low-paying dead-end jobs, blowing his cash on booze and women, and scrimping by in flea-bitten apartments, Chinaski sees his poetic star rising at last. Now, at fifty, he is reveling in his sudden rock-star life, running three hundred hangovers a year, and maintaining a sex life that would cripple Casanova.

BUY


Breakfast Of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut

In a frolic of cartoons and comic outbursts against rule and reason, Kurt Vonnegut attacks the whole spectrum of American society, releasing some of his best-loved literary creations on the scene.

BUY


A Visit from the Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

BUY


JPJohn Purcell

John Purcell is a bestselling author in his own right (Secret Lives of Emma anyone?) and Booktopia’s Head of Marketing and Chief Buyer.

He counts many long-dead authors among his friends.


Andrew Cattanach

Andrew Cattanach is a contributor to The Booktopia Blog and was shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize.

He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping though finds it difficult to do them all at once. He also wants more novels to involve crime-fighting chimpanzees.


Here’s a photo of John’s favourite American novels, taken from the shelves of his library. Email your favourites to promos@booktopia.com.au to have them shared to 60,000 people on our Facebook Page!

My favourite American novels

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

Follow Andrew: Twitter

Comments

  • July 4, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Interesting lists which provide some new avenues to explore. Isn’t To The Lighthouse an English novel and Virginia Woolf part of the Bloomsbury group?

  • Samantha D

    July 4, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Some great books on this list, but it doesn’t feel complete to me without The Sound and the Fury (notwithstanding that other works of Faulkner are included).

    I would also have included some Richard Yates.
    And Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

    And there are some great Ameican children’s books of course: The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth, Little Women, What Katy Did, the. Little House books, to name just a few.

    Your list has also reminded me that there a few more I should get around to reading. Kate Chopin has been on my To Be Read list forever. This blog post reminds me I should bump her up abit closr to the top.

    And Franzen – well, I’m not naturally inclined to it, but I feel I really should and have been tossing up between The Corrections and Freedom for awhile.

    • Samantha D

      July 5, 2013 at 10:16 am

      Oh, and Sherman Alexie, of course.

      Only the fact that it was late at night and I was posting from the tiny screen of the Blackberry excuses the omission of Sherman Alexie in my previous post.

      Not everything – I think “Indian Killer” suffers from trying to straddle genres, but “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven” and “The Toughest Indian in the World” (both story collections) are brilliant.

  • July 5, 2013 at 9:47 am

    In my eagerness to represent brilliant female authors it seems I Americanised Virginia Woolf!

    Apologies, and Harper Lee takes her place.

  • Anthony Catanzariti

    July 5, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Good list.

    Could use a bit of Salinger, though. And some William Styron, Anne Tyler and Ken Kesey.

  • July 5, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    Sometimes I have trouble getting into American writing. It has a different tone and sensibility to Aus or English Lit but your lists provide some great opportunities to test my prejudices. Cheers guys.

  • Terry Savill

    July 6, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    Amazed that The Grapes of Wrath didn’t get a guernsey on either list.

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