Rufi Thorpe recommends 6 books that knocked her out

The PEN/Faulkner Award finalist recommends works by Lucia Berlin, Harry Crews, and more

Rufi Thorpe
(Image credit: Nina Subin)

Rufi Thorpe's The Knockout Queen is a finalist for the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award. Now out in paperback, the novel tells a coming-of-age story about a gay teenager who moves in with his aunt in an upscale Southern California suburb.

Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine by Kevin Wilson (2018).

Once in India I saw what looked like a chrome-rainbow wasp, so pretty I reached out to touch it, unaware it would sting. Wilson's writing is like that, especially in this short-story collection — so kind and funny you don't even see the knife.

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The Second Season by Emily Adrian (2021).

I couldn't put this forthcoming novel down, and I don't even like basketball. It finds a prominent female sportscaster at a personal crossroads years after her playing career ended, and it delivers a remarkably subtle and brutal exploration of motherhood, violence, and the body. Best line: "Basketball and motherhood had something in common. Each required your animal self."

The Knockout Artist by Harry Crews (1988).

Whatever this book did to me was irreversible. An ex-boxer with a glass jaw makes a living by knocking himself out for viewers' entertainment. My favorite line: "There ought to be a law against the sun rising and setting for you in somebody else."

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018).

It's not really fair for a debut to be this good, but after reading this collection I will read anything that Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah writes. Come for the satire on Black Friday sales, stay for the end of the world.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (2015).

The talent of Lucia Berlin (1936–2004) went largely unappreciated in her lifetime, but this posthumous collection of 43 of her stories has it all: racist dentists, little girls hitting nuns, beautiful horse jockeys. Darkly funny and gently heartbreaking.

Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender (2005).

If God said, "You have to go live in someone's brain, pick a person," I might choose Aimee Bender. Her mind is like those dreams in which you discover there is a passageway to another house inside your closet. In "End of the Line," a regular-size man purchases a much smaller one from a pet shop in order to torment him. Favorite line: "Pain was no longer a mystery to him, and a man familiar with pain has entered a new kind of freedom."

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