Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage Books, $13) and editor of The Vintage Book of Amnesia (Vintage Books, $14), lists his favorite big, sprawling American novels. These are the kinds of books which seem intimidating and heavy when you first check the page countand which by the end youre reluctant to finish, and wishing for another few hundred pages.
Another Country by James Baldwin (Vintage Books, $14). Baldwin is well remembered as an essayist and dissident but too little read as a novelist. This mosaic of artists and expatriates in and out of New York City is his masterpiece. Nobody ever understood the fragility and yearning of bohemian strivers better than this.
Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner (Harcourt Brace, $27). Winegardner gives the reader a centurys history through the lens of the city of Cleveland, and throws in a Gatsby-esque romance too. Full of mobsters, baseball players, and early rock n roll, the book is generous, funny, and wisea banquet.
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (Everymans Library, $22). The author is Australian but the book is very much the great American novel of family dysfunction, written in a unique, freewheeling language Ive never encountered elsewhere. These characters are unforgettable, particularly the bright, wild-eyed, heartbreaking kids.
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (Vintage Books, $18). Into a ruined, nameless city wanders an amnesiac poet. There he encounters everything. Delany strips society of its pretenses, but he does so tenderly. The novel contains a host of unusual techniques and voicesas well as some startling lifestyle choicesbut in the end is big, warm, and human.
Letting Go by Philip Roth (Vintage Books, $15). Before Zuckerman and Portnoy, Roth worked on a massive canvas in a naturalistic style. The results are messy and brilliant. Roths insights are so piercing and wise, they can be nearly impossible to bear. Maybe thats why he shifted to manic, brilliant monologues in his next dozen books, before returning to these kinds of character portraits in American Pastoral and The Human Stain.