The days are beginning to crack towards winter; glass-like shimmers on the grass in the early mornings, your breath pumping out little ghosts of air in the crisp cold, the day where you need to scrape the car windscreen for the first time isn’t far away. It’s the time for comfort reading.
But comfort doesn’t necessarily mean easy, or nice, or happy. For lots of people comfort comes from escapism into other worlds or realms, or from a crime novel where you know there will be a satisfying conclusion. For me, it’s American grit. And that’s exactly what I’ve been drawn towards in recent weeks.
I only started reading properly in my mid-20s and it was the grit of America that first truly grabbed me. It started, I suppose, with Cormac McCarthy. I first stumbled upon The Road and was utterly broken by the story, mesmerised by McCarthy’s spare, poetic prose, and hooked by his disregard for the conventions of the written word. I then proceeded to devour his entire back catalogue in barely 12 months – probably not great advice because, amazing as the novels are, they are abidingly bleak.
This early obsession with the themes of these novels, particularly the gritty, dark aspects of them has now blossomed into a never-ending search for other similar authors, past and present. Having graduated through some of the classics, like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, these days I am finding some of the lesser-known gems. Here are a few I have come across lately that you might like if dark minds, violent actions and spiralling fortunes are your kind of thing…
Denis Johnson, who died in 2017, was famous for chronicling life on the edges of society, and no better than in his stunning debut novel, Angels, a book championed by David Foster Wallace. It follows Jamie, a young woman who has walked away from an unhappy marriage with her two girls and is heading east from California on a Greyhound bus to who-the-hell-cares-where. She meets drifter Bill Houston, a man whose every dream in life seems unfeasible except the one where he becomes a great criminal. We follow these two lost souls as they spiral down through drink, drugs, incarceration and, eventually, death. It is a novel of extraordinary power rendered in exquisite, muscular prose and has one of the most emotionally distressing endings I’ve ever read. It’s not often I shed tears at books but this one did it at the end.
Harry Crews is an author who is largely – criminally – out of print. He was a true southern original, a man whose ideas were crazy, wild, hilarious and always totally unique. We are pleased to be able to stock Classic Crews, about the only thing you can get hold of these days, at Mr B’s. It contains two of his novels – including Car, the darkly funny story of a man from a junkyard family who disgraces his parents by eating a brand-new Ford from bumper-to-bumper in front of an audience at a local hotel – as well as his astonishing memoir and some of his journalism. He was a masterful writer who deserves to be re-discovered.
The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley, is another book that should really be better known. C.W Sughrue is a private investigator from Montana who has just chased down a renegade poet to a bar outside of San Francisco, where he sits with a glass in his hand and an alcoholic bulldog by his side. The poet, Trahearne, is drunk and bored and tags along with Sughrue on his next case, a dead-end missing-girl job that takes them through the dark underbelly of 70s SF. Soaked in whiskey and full of wise-cracks, this wild tale is Raymond Chandler by way of Hunter S Thompson. Sometimes violent, frequently hilarious, it’s the best crime novel I have read in years.