I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (New Directions, $15). Hrabal’s hilarious, unforgettable portrait of Nazi-occupied Prague as seen through the eyes of a quixotic young waiter is a must-read for anyone who has ever worked in food service or hospitality. Released in 1971 by an underground anti-communist press in Prague, it wasn’t published in America until 1990.
Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist (Vintage, $14). What story could be 10 times more compelling than the life of Jesus Christ? How about the life of the guy who was acquitted so Jesus Christ could be crucified? The Bible gives Barabbas one or two lines; Lagerkvist gives him a novel, and it’s a glorious thing.
Ask the Dust by John Fante (Harper, $14). This novel virtually cemented my status as a young alcoholic misfit determined to starve himself in the name of literature. When I first read it, at 18, Arturo Bandini was the most fully realized, intensely human character to ever tear my heart out and kick it down the stairs.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (Dover, $5). Melville’s shorter novels find him at the top of his game as a pure craftsman, but Moby-Dick is something else, something rarer. Moby-Dick is unfettered genius, furious, unhinged, and at times frustrating. A work so powerful it can barely sustain the force of its own invention, containing every narrative mode you can think of.
Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14). Clever bugs me. Even Kurt Vonnegut, whom I hold dear to my heart, can get on my nerves when he can’t resist his own cleverness. Brautigan is different. The dude couldn’t seem to help it. It didn’t feel like he was showing off. Beneath his goofy sensibility and stoned wit lies a clear-eyed moral vision that reminds me of Whitman’s.
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (Dial, $15). I take it all back about Vonnegut. When I was 8, my old man gave me Breakfast of Champions. Soon Vonnegut felt like an uncle—specifically, the uncle who shows you the world that nobody else thinks you’re quite ready to see.
—Author Jonathan Evison's second novel, West of Here, was recently published by Algonquin. Set in a fictional town in his home state of Washington, it covers a century of settlement in the Pacific Northwest.