Self-Consciousness by John Updike (Random House, $16). Would Updike have been such a fabulous writer if he weren't afflicted with terrible psoriasis? And a stutter? According to Updike, they should be credited with whatever courage and originality he possessed. His shamelessness on the page distracted him from his real-life shame.
Experience by Martin Amis (Vintage, $18). In Experience, Amis transforms his horrendous dental problems into the sort of life-and-death epic we once got from men who'd gone to war: He's obsessional and (sorry!) biting. He provides a sharp portrait of his irascible father, too.
The Prisoner of Sex by Norman Mailer (out of print). Mailer is at his most swaggering, hysterical, and embattled — ranting against feminists, birth control, and his ex-wives — while spending a summer single-handedly tending to five of his six children (and fantasizing about winning the Nobel Prize). Mailer writes hilariously brilliant, loopy sentences; he's self-mocking and pompous and enviably original.
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A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley (Vintage, $16). On the verge of a divorce, Exley surveyed the wreckage of his life in funny, coruscating, painfully lyrical sentences. He presented it all as a "fictional memoir" by a drunken, self-destructive, impotent failure — in his own
Patrimony by Philip Roth (Vintage, $15). This is Roth not hiding behind his usual alter egos (though you wonder if Roth is really capable of telling anything as simple as "a true story"). Patrimony is a brutal and mordantly funny account of his father's decline and death.
U & I by Nicholson Baker (Vintage, $13). The "U" in the title is John Updike, whose talent obsesses Baker: How does his own stack up in comparison? A grandiloquent goofball, Baker can't stop fretting about his literary reputation, his psoriasis (an affliction he's proud to share with Updike), and why Updike invited writer Tim O'Brien to go golfing instead of him. His ambitions, insecurities, and pettiness are cringe-making, but also, in a weird way, magnificent.