Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Five Great Southern Novels

In New York for about 27 hours, for a luncheon and reception to honor CITY OF REFUGE and Tom Piazza, winner of this year's Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. I was a judge for this award, which recognizes books that reflect "hope for belonging, for belief in people's better nature." CITY OF REFUGE is a marvelous book about two very different families trying to rebuild their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It's just out in paperback, and you should read it.

Getting here yesterday meant waking up at 3:00 a.m. to make a 6:00 a.m. plane out of Portland, and this morning I'll be taking a train and a bus and a car to get home again. It was worth the effort to spend a day with people who are passionate about books. Yesterday's luncheon included a discussion of "five best" lists (a coincidence; the person who started the conversation had never met me and is unaware of this blog), so it seems appropriate to make today's post a list of my five all-time favorite Southern novels.

1. ALL THE KING'S MEN by Robert Penn Warren. (Louisiana) I've written about this book before. Someone asked Tom Piazza last night whether he thought the state of Louisiana would ever manage to fix its political corruption; he said simply, "No." Then he laughed and elaborated, but the truth is that what we call corruption is simply the polite (and smart) way to do business in Louisiana. ALL THE KINGS MEN explains that in detail. But why would we think this was true only for Louisiana, or only for the South? As Willie Stark says, "There is always something."

2. DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT by Anne Tyler. (Maryland) Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for 1982, this is my favorite Anne Tyler novel. Cody, Jenny and Ezra Tull grow up in Baltimore under the anxious, angry eye of their mother, Pearl, who never admitted to them that their father simply left, years ago, after a business trip. As adults, Cody, Jenny and Ezra all try different ways to get for themselves what they felt they missed as children, with varying degrees of success. Ezra, in particular, creates his own vision of a happy home at a place called the Homesick Restaurant. I can't think of a novel that taught me more about how families work, and Tyler's great love for her characters shines from every page.

3. GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell. (Georgia) Oh, did you think I'd leave this off the list? Heck, no. Being popular doesn't mean it's not good, and GONE WITH THE WIND is an epic novel that illustrates a time and place as well as any book before or since. Scarlett O'Hara's life story is a hero's journey that pre-dated the women's liberation movement by 40 years, and people will still be reading this book 100 years from now.

4. KATE VAIDEN by Reynolds Price. (North Carolina) I've written about this book as well, and might put it on a list of top five novels, period. In many ways it is the opposite of GONE WITH THE WIND, although set in a completely different time and place. While Scarlett O'Hara never questions her right to the things she wants or needs, Kate Vaiden is not sure she has a right to even the smallest of lives. If I taught a course on women in Southern novels, I would ask students to discuss how these two perspectives are actually two sides of one coin. It's a discussion that would require more space than this blog allows.

5. THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy. (Louisiana) If someone asked me to identify the characteristic themes of the greatest southern novels, I might say, "Family, guilt, and the consequences of carelessness." All of these are at play in THE MOVIEGOER, the story of Binx Bolling's Lenten redemption. Binx is a man defined by his family and his social standing who daydreams instead about the magic world offered by movies; ultimately, the movies offer him a way back into the life that seemed meaningless.

Leave your own recommendations for this list below . . .


Anonymous said...

"All the King's Men" is the greatest American novel, let alone the best Southern novel.

-- Ed

Bea said...

William Faulkner. Flannery O'Connor.

Claire said...

Agreed, Ed. Every time I go back to that book, even just to flip open to a spot in the middle, I'm just stunned.

And in the "popular doesn't mean bad" pile, To Kill A Mockingbird should really never be ignored no matter how many times you have to read it for school. (But I'd argue that its brilliant first-person narration is even more important that its Southern/racial significance.)

Kevin Wignall said...

Goodness, I haven't read any of these, and I'm doubly shocked after reading Ed's comment that I'd never even heard of "All the King's Men".

Must do some catching up.

I assume you left out "To Kill a Mockingbird" because of its omnipresence? Or don't you care for it? And on a similar note, I have a soft spot for "The Grass Harp" by Truman Capote.

Kevin Wignall said...

Okay, I made my comment before yours went up - point taken.

Sue Lin said...

I wouldn't place his work in the greatest of the Southern novels, but reading Carl Hiaasen is such a great pleasure.

Sue Lin

Kevin Wignall said...

Sue, I thought of him, too, but (forgive my Englishness if this is wrong), I don't really think of Florida as being part of "The South".

AnswerGirl said...

Kevin, that was Claire-my-daughter and not Clair-myself mentioning To Kill a Mockingbird . . . and I thought about including it, but given the five book limit, gave that spot to Gone with the Wind instead.

If I were expanding the list to ten, the next five would certainly include To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sound and the Fury — and Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen, a novel set in Florida. Add Huck Finn and Wise Blood, and that's ten.

I think you have to count Florida as the south, although the question of exactly how it is and isn't southern is an interesting one. You can also argue about whether Missouri and Maryland are "South," but that's an entry for a different day.

AnswerGirl said...

And I forgot to mention A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole!

JIM LAMB said...

I never read any of the books on your top five and only Huck Finn of the rest. I guess that is why your mother always said I had no real education, dispite my degrees.
I see as I continue to clean things out that there are some of Faulkner and of course GWTW on the shelves. Maybe I should read those instead of all that Science Fiction.

Anonymous said...

Maryland is south of the Mason-Dixon line, but Missouri is a hard sell with me, I second Carl Hiaason


Caught up on sleep yet?