Stewart O'Nan's 6 favorite fiction books that feature real-life characters
Libra by Don DeLillo (Penguin, $16). Leave it to the master to go after Lee Harvey Oswald, the definitive American antihero, in a big way. Throw in Oswald's Russian wife, Marina, the rabid Jack Ruby, and a whole lot of underground intrigue. Oh, that gorgeous opening on the subway: sparks, the rails squealing, "another crazy-ass curve."
Arrogance by Joanna Scott (Picador, $18). Following her own dictum of "Don't write what you know; write what you want to know," Scott conjured decadent turn-of-the-century Vienna, following the painter Egon Schiele's hallucinatory exploits as he toiled in the shadow of his mentor Gustav Klimt. Bring on the absinthe, cocaine, and self-loathing. Irving Stone's Lust for Life, this ain't.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Picador, $15). A third of this braided novel follows Virginia Woolf as she approaches her chosen end. In most cases, trying to take on the sensibility of your famous real-life character is a trap, yet thrillingly, Cunningham pulls it off.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Grove, $17). In the aftermath of the Nixon era, mad magician and bad boy Coover took on American exceptionalism and Cold War paranoia, staging the public execution of the Rosenbergs in Times Square in this over-the-top American opera buffa. A book full of fireworks, yet indisputably heavy.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (Vintage, $15). Just a cameo by William Holden on a New Orleans street corner is enough to launch Binx Bolling on his search for an authentic life. Percy captures our desire to see the actual reflected in fiction (in this case, film) and thus made real.
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley (Vintage, $16). Novel, memoir, or "autobiographical fiction," whatever fanciful embellishments Exley indulges in, his outsize love for Frank Gifford and the New York Giants is real, hilarious, and terrifying. In the book, Exley strives and fails to become the only thing worth being in America: famous. In life, the book made him famous, and he tried to live up to the character he created, a process he then chronicled in two more books.