An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (Signet, $10). Dreiser was known for his sometimes plodding prose, but this great tale of yearning and frustration draws power from its author's literal-mindedness. Clyde Griffiths, a child of the Kansas City streets, sees his chance to climb the golden ladder, only to have its rungs snap under his weight. His terrible plunge is brutally observed and expressed.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (Norton, $15). Tom Ripley wants to be someone he's not, and he solves the problem with devilish elegance, killing his idol and stealing his identity. The novel then becomes a farce as Ripley relies on ever-fancier footwork to keep his creepy charade from falling apart. Since we can't help but root for him, we feel like creeps as well.
The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère (Picador, $17). When I was halfway through Blood Will Out, a young Swiss novelist visiting Montana insisted that I read this chilling account of a doctor-impersonating Frenchman who murdered his own family when the act unraveled. True evil stalks these pages, so beware.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, $15). Is Gatsby a sociopath? I think he qualifies. He's a liar, a gangster, and a stalker. Worse, he's rumored to have killed someone. Maybe we're wrong to be so charmed by him, and maybe Nick is too.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (Penguin, $14). This largely forgotten novel was Melville's last. It sums up human existence as a vast joke that we play on ourselves, according to our temperaments. The trickster of the title molds himself to his victims' weaknesses, changing forms and proving that deception begins within.
Paul's Case and Other Stories by Willa Cather (Dover, $3). In "Paul's Case," Cather's greatest short story, a poor boy from Pennsylvania lives out his fever dream of wealth in a single, doomed spree in New York City. No piece of fiction I know of better captures the irresistible pull of glamour and luxury on the minds of the marginal and insecure.