Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. Every year on the first day of school, the teachers at my junior high would distribute to the students a mimeographed 'Code of Student Conduct.' Then, betraying their bad conscience with regard to their pedagogical competence, they would read aloud from the rule book, so none of us ne'er-do-wells could claim illiteracy as an excuse. This is how we were taught the all-important 'rules.' One of these, I recall, forbade the "possession, distribution or editing of pornographic materials." The 'editing' part always made me chuckle at the outrageous notion that any of my fellow students would have the originality and ambition to set himself up as a junior Larry Flynt. What brings the memory to mind now, however, is the fact that while the rule was being read out on the first day of eighth grade, an athletically-read, crack-spined paperback of John Updike's Rabbit is Rich was lying face-up on my schoolroom desk. I had spent most of the seventh grade (a year I barely remember, for some vague reason) waiting for Updike's novel to be published in paperback so I could buy and read this book about which I had already heard so many positive things. When I finally acquired a copy, it was an extended lightning flash of revelation. Reading it, I was like a secular Saul on the road to Damascus, not blinded but finally finding my sight, finally seeing what lurked in the secret places of the adult world. Beyond the Modernist technique, beyond even the beauty of the prose, I was flabbergasted by Updike's freedom, the almost unbelievable fact that you can show anything in a novel, that you can even make pissing poetic, that the minutiae of suburban life can be the stuff not just of fiction but of lyrical fiction. And of course--and hardly least, to a growing boy--there was the sex. Hot damn, this was a sexy, sexy book. Oral, vaginal, anal, banal, it was all in there. And this was the book, this book that climaxed with a scene in which two characters peed on each other and then enjoyed a little anal, that I was openly re-reading while some now-forgotten teacher pronounced his mimeo'd anathema upon pornography. I remain unsure if it was the liberality or the illiteracy of my teachers that saved me from an unlivedownable junior high embarrassment. (But I'm leaning toward illiteracy.)
Songs and Sonnets by John Donne. Donne is difficult. Donne is funny. Donne is serious. Donne is sexy. Donne is deadly. Donne is The Man. Probably the most important literary accomplishment of the Eliot-worshipping New Critics was the revival of John Donne, the only poet of his time strong enough to survive comparison with Shakespeare. I first read him in a high school English class, but like all assigned readings, that shouldn't be considered 'reading' at all. Authentic reading, like authentic action, can only be voluntary. I studied Donne more deeply in college, rehearsing the still-standard New Critical explications, teasing out the contradictory ironies wittily concealed within his crazy conceits. But my most important reading was done after hours, sitting in a study carrel in a gigantic room at the Ohio State main library and reading "The Canonization" and "The Sun Rising" and "The Ecstasy" and the various 'Valedictions' over and over until I came into tune with their ironic tone and began to hear them spoken in a highly arch, satirically haughty voice, as though they were being recited by John Cleese on the Python show. I still think this is the voice we should imagine when reading Donne (even the Holy Sonnets), and it's surely the best voice in which to read a body of work deeply influenced by Donne, the poetry of Andrew Marvell.
The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Today it seems literally incredible that a writer of aesthetically advanced literary fiction could ever have achieved the level of popularity that, despite its Kilimanjaro-like height, couldn't keep Ernest Hemingway from pressing both barrels of a Boss to his neck and tripping the trigger with his toe. (Oh, how Hemingway would've hated that sentence: too long, too many adjectives, and with a hairpin turn of meaning that's severe enough to produce whiplash.) It's probably impossible for any mere writer today, whether a literary acolyte or a toiler in the genres, to achieve Hemingway's kind of universal celebrity. Even people who had never read a word of him knew who he was: a genius, a great writer, an adventurer. He was revered by everyone from illiterates to intellectuals. Not even Stephen King or J. K. Rowling can boast of that. The truly mind-blowing thing about Hemingway's enormous fame, though, is the fact that it was founded upon a revolution in literary style. Stylistically, most writers are either puritans or hedonists. They either clap buckles on their hats or dance around the maypole at Merrymount. Hemingway, with his successful attempt to clarify a literary language that had risen to levels of HenryJamesian convolution (levels I love like liquor, like licorice, like licking pistachio ice cream melting into the creases of a hot, pink pussy--ahem, excuse my hedonism), is American literature's most prominent member of the buckled hat brigade. It seems counterintuitive to think of the exquisitely mannered and closeted Mr. James as a hedonist and the rowdy, whiskey-soaked, transsexual-fantasizing Hemingway as a puritan, but there we are. He was the foremost stylistic puritan in our literature until the rise of Raymond Carver, and he set American writing on the path that finally reaches its reductio ad absurdum in the one- and two-word sentences of James Ellroy, a style so hard-boiled it'll break your teeth. And of course, as is the dialectical nature of things, alongside this puritanical streak runs a wide, wild, Technicolor swath of hedonistic prose: Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac, Gass, Philip Roth, Gaddis, Pynchon, Morrison, Styron. In general I prefer the latter tendency, but I have found great pleasure in the mountain-clear streams of Hemingway's prose, especially in the short stories. I have often returned to "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber," "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Killers," "Big Two-Hearted River," "Indian Camp," "Fathers and Sons" and others.
Sophie's Choice by William Styron. When I was fifteen and a virgin and desperately didn't want to be either fifteen or a virgin, I felt myself personally addressed by this novel narrated by a young writer in his twenties who's both a war veteran and, somewhat inexplicably, also a virgin. A WWII-era one-liner went "There are no virgins in the Army because the Army fucks everybody," a truism to which Styron's Stingo is apparently the unlaid outlier. I deeply identified with Stingo's horniness, but Styron's language was the thing I grew to love. Sophie's Choice was one of the first novels (perhaps the very first) to impress me with the pure, musical beauty of its prose. (The critics who hated the book on this score were timeservers at best and at worst damned dogmatic fools.) Of course, the novel had problems. All long novels do. Even as a teenager, I was a perceptive enough reader to spot the book's most serious formal flaw: Styron sends Sophie through so many kinds of hell over the course of the book that by the time we reach the titular 'choice,' its horrifying force has been somewhat blunted by all that has come before. Rereading the novel in my twenties, after having OD'd on Faulkner and sampled the lyrical flights of Wolfe--the two most obvious precursors of Styron's entire oeuvre--I came to understand it as a tragic meditation on identity, a novel about the way we construct ourselves through the autobiographical stories we tell, and how those stories can be inflected into falsehood by psychological trauma. I still have a very high opinion of Sophie's Choice. As an attempt to write a credible modern tragedy in an American idiom, I place it alongside The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire. It's one of the great American novels.