5. Revolutionary Road
The 1950s American ideal was to find a suitable mate and settle down in a house in the suburbs with a couple of kids and a steady job, right? This book pulled apart that ideal, with its depiction of an ordinary couple (Frank and April Wheeler) who thought they were doing the right thing, but ended up deeply unhappy. There is a glimmer of hope, once their kids are no longer babies, that they can all move to France and fulfill the nomadic dreams they once had. But fate intervenes and the dream is never realized.
Richard Yates, the author, said “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy”. That’s the message at the heart of this book – the characters think they will be happy if they do as everyone expects them to, but they end up isolated from the world and each other. A stinging satire on the 1950s suburbs.
4. The 42nd Parallel
The first part of his “U.S.A. Trilogy”, The 42nd Parallel traces the lives of five Americans at the start of the 20th Century. It was a time when America was still establishing itself, and separating from the other world powers and a time when individuals were keen to climb the social ladder. Both these themes are evident in the story, as the working-class characters move to New York and try to break into society or try and make a life for themselves as a worker. The scope of the novel is broad, and there’s something in there that everyone can relate to – the class struggle is still relevant to today. It’s been described as “so important to the America’s past and present societal psyche that it should be taught in her public schools” and it’s a real insight into what made this country work.
3. The Catcher in the Rye
A great coming-of-age novel, this book explores a young man alone in Manhattan after having been expelled from school. There’s no real overarching plot – it’s just Holden Caulfield wandering around New York, asking cab drivers questions about ducks and almost losing his virginity but not quite. And yet, it’s a literary classic. Holden isn’t always sympathetic as a protagonist, but there is a childlike innocence about him that’s appealing and his loneliness throughout the book echoes what Richard Yates says about human beings ending up alone. It’s semi-autobiographical and explores teenage rebellion, in the face of expected norms. It’s been banned and debated due to its explicit content but it makes compelling reading.
2. On the Road
The novel that inspired a thousand teenage roadtrips, this encompasses the breadth of America from San Francisco to New York. It was supposedly written in three weeks, but those three weeks didn’t include the years of driving across the country, and note-taking that Kerouac did in pursuit of his novel. The book is divided into five episodic parts, but is chiefly about a pair of friends Salvatore Paradise and Dean Moriarty who travel across America together, meeting women, listening to jazz and taking drugs. Unsurprisingly, there was quite some backlash against the book when it first hit conservative America in 1957, but it has since become appreciated as a classic of the Beat Generation of which Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady (the real life Dean Moriarty) were part. Essential reading for anyone interested in jazz, America, the 1950s or just human nature.
1. Huckleberry Finn
But when it come to novels about America, there is none more definitive than Huckleberry Finn. A simple tale of a boy’s friendship with a slave that crosses the boundaries of age and race, it was a condemnation of the divided society of the time and revolutionary in its attitude towards black men. It was published in 1885, but set around 50 years earlier in the Deep South and chronicles Huck and Jim’s journey along the Mississippi River in beautiful detail. It is significant for its account of 19th century America and the way that slaves were treated, but it is also a journey novel and a coming of age novel too. A deserved classic.