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 . . .