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6 powerful books that speak to this American moment

Novelist Steve Erickson recommends eye-opening books that "speak to the current moment"

Steve Erickson, author of Zeroville and much other inventive fiction, recommends books that "speak to the current moment":

Cane by Jean Toomer (Liveright, $15).

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Educated in the sciences, descended from slaves, and asserting his blackness even though he could pass for white, Toomer was a one-man renaissance in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. This 1923 hybrid novel about African-American life is as multifaceted as its author — prose, poetry, and theater all cohering in horror and lyricism.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor (Harvest, $15).

She was dead before 40 and in no way considered herself a "social" writer. Yet O'Connor was distinguished by her empathy for the dispossessed, most conspicuously in "The Displaced Person," where class, color, and immigration tensions collide in a tragedy so inevitable as to be absurd.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (Ecco, $16).

This allegorical 1949 novel turns American nomads loose in a ruthless Sahara, where they suppose they're protected by the 20th century. The protagonist isn't Kit Moresby or her husband or her lover, or even the eponymous sky above, but the planet below trying to expel all of us from its face.

Light in August by William Faulkner (Vintage, $15).

Trying to hide from himself in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, Joe Christmas is going mad from the most consequentially American of secrets: whether he's white or black. This is my favorite American novel. It's dark, fevered, and subversive.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (Mariner, $14).

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In one of the author's more berserk semiclassics, constitutional law collapses, the nation becomes both police state and TV show, and an overseeing "director" has incestuous feelings for his kin. Forty years after the publication of a story even Dick thought was nuts, his prophecies catch up with us.

Human Diastrophism by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics, $20).

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One of the greatest graphic novels ever, this 1987 volume is part of Love and Rockets, a series about a Central American village written by three brothers from Oxnard, California. It is thrilling, surreal, and haunted, and it provides an important reminder: From the perspective of those on the other side, a border wall has one benefit: not keeping them in, but keeping us out.

Steve Erickson's new novel, Shadowbahn, unfolds in an America where the Twin Towers have reappeared in South Dakota.

Recommended

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