Rich Cohen, contributing editor at Rolling Stone, is the author of The Avengers and Tough Jews. His most recent book, a memoir called Lake Effect (Knopf, $23), was published in April 2002.
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (Bantam Classic & Loveswept, $5). A beautiful, obsessive portrait of Americas first superhighway, the great river that connects MinneapolisSt. Paul and New Orleans. A river seen as both a part of the big history of America and as a part of the small, or not so small, history of Samuel Clemens.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (Bantam Classic & Loveswept, $6). A truly American work set in a small Midwestern town, the big city beckoning from down the highway as George Willard, the hero of the book, watches his childhood slip away, realizing, There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes a backward look at life.
The Bottom of the Harbor by Joseph Mitchell (out of print). In this book, Mitchell finds the fringe elements in the everyday world of merchant fishermen and suburban Jerseystories that read like a guide to a city that has ceased to exist, a New York lost beneath a sediment of Starbucks and Duane Reades. If you follow the truth of these pieces, however, you see that that old mysterious city is never really more than a scratch beneath the surface.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (Vintage Books, $12). Binx Bolling drifts from movie house to movie house, searching out some connection to life, or else he spins down the Gulf Coast with one of his many secretaries, dodging malaise and looking for a way to commit himself to life.
Great Plains by Ian Frazier (Picador USA, $13). It is a wonder to watch Frazier retell the story of America in a slightly different key. His sentences are always surprising and funny and new. After about a million years of landscape writing, he actually has something fresh to bring.
Jesus Son by Denis Johnson (Harper Perennial, $12). A series of interlinked stories that follow the boy in his progress through the world. We come out on the other side of the 20th century, with this kid reappearing as a drug-addled drifter. The pills return to the narrator something like the early American amazement, a wild clarity that gives the book its tremendous beauty.