D.H. Lawrence once wrote that “one loses one’s sickness in books.” I don’t know if that’s quite right. I read like a champ, yet I’m a fairly boring guy with few kinks that I’m willing to admit to. I have never killed a man. I have never had anonymous sex with multiple partners (my loss, I suppose). I have never even faced off against Ultimate Evil armed with only my wits, a flashlight, and a roll of duct tape. Consequently, the sicknesses I have to lose are easily handled by massive infusions of alcohol and by a strict program of yoga, emetics, and curmudgeonly behavior. Okay, I might be a huge fan of “Gilmore Girls” and vegetarian cookbooks, but those aren’t as much signs of sickness as of postmodern metrosexual wimpery.
No, I usually go to books to find my sickness. I tend to prefer works that simultaneously attract and repel with an aplomb rarely found in standard “horror” fare. So, in tribute to this season where all America goes in search of their sicknesses and usually comes back with nothing more than a cheap torn costume and a bellyache, I have decided to offer up to you, gentle reader, a highly personal list of my favorites of what my wife recently dubbed my “awful” books.
There are no horror novels on this list, because they bore me to tears. Instead, the selections run the gamut from autobiography to experimental fiction. Yet these are the ones that gave me nightmares, or at least ruined my week admirably. At the root of this list are two questions: why do people choose to read a book they know will upset them; and what does it accomplish? Luckily, I’m no philosopher, so I can only offer pat answers. I like such books because I have an active imagination yet little ambition to be an Airborne Ranger or ninja, and what they accomplish is to allow me to satisfy the kinky parts of said imagination without actually getting down in there in the muck. They let me be a tourist rather than a resident.
So, without further ado, puffery, or hijinks, the list:
Written in Ellroy’s signature staccato prose, the book is unflinching in its depiction of his mother as a flawed woman and equally unflinching in dealing with James’ own Oedipal obsession with her death. Ellroy is brutally honest as he lays bare the wellspring for the darkness that underlies his novels. All the standard plot elements he uses in his fiction are here: random acts of mayhem; a preoccupation with avenging violence against women; corrupt and incompetent cops; Los Angeles as a living thing in its own right; and underneath it all, a ten year old boy madly in love with his dead mother.
The Killer Inside Me is the story of a small-town deputy named Lou Ford, a quiet man who everybody likes just fine: normal, good neighbor, nice enough guy, until the sickness comes out and people suffer and die. The breakthrough that makes this novel transcend Thompson’s limitations as a writer is that Thompson wrote it in the first person, making sure the reader is along for every bit of torture, murder, and cruelty. This one made me feel dirty, yet I found it too entertaining to stop reading.
Of all the books on this list, I can’t honestly recommend this one without reservations. But if you are a fan of American hard-boiled crime fiction, I suggest you test your mettle and see how much you really like it.
Like so much of Bukowski’s fiction, Ham On Rye is thinly veiled autobiography. In this case we explore Buk’s young life in California, including his first encounter with alcohol (thumbs up!), his monstrous father, his high-school stint in the ROTC, several fights, some unpleasantness with women, and numerous trips to the doctor’s office to have his boils lanced. Although other Bukowski works could have made this list, this is in my opinion his best-written novel, and the one that keeps coming back on me.
Despite the aforementioned obsession with bodily functions, Naked Lunch lives up to its legendary status and makes the grade as Burroughs’ best novel. All his experimental prose elements are working, his imagery is vivid, and I cannot for the life of me get the image of the Willy The Disc sucking the junk out of some poor dying junkie’s body out of my head.
A random flip through its pages reveals the following wisdom: “Deteriorated schitzos sometimes refuse to move at all….Initial proctosis and the inveitable purulent discharge– which may pass unnoticed in the shuffle– is followed by stricture of the rectum requiring intervention of an apple corer or its surgical equivalent….Bedpans full of blood and Kotex….The President he is a junky but can’t take it direct because of his position….sometimes have to slip my penis under his left eyelid….”Cut him down, Mark!” she screams. Mark reaches over with a snap knife and cuts the rope….The centipede is rushing about in agitation….”
Here’s the plot, as much as one can be discerned. Tyrone Slothrop is a member of the US Army working intelligence detail during World War II. As a young child, Slothrop was subjected to psychological experiments in which his sexual urges were displaced onto objects. As a consequence, the map of Slothrop’s sexual conquests in London corresponds to a map of rocket hits on the city. This unique connection with the rockets provides Slothrop with a sort of homing ability, and he is set loose in Germany to locate a new German super-weapon, the V2 rocket. As Slothrop moves deeper and deeper into Germany in search of the V2, his world becomes populated by malevolent soldiers, cartoon characters, mad scientists, and human weapons. At that point, things get kind of weird.
If you have a couple months to kill and no pressing obligations, you can do much, much worse than hide yourself away with Gravity’s Rainbow and the Companion to same.
Hardy, who’s a pretty bleak writer by any measure, delivers a tragic story of characters caught up in destinies they created but cannot control. It makes this list by virtue of Hardy’s seeming belief that the innocent are born to suffer and the incredible restraint and power Hardy demonstrates in recounting such a standard, simple, classic plot.
I’m also looking forward to reading Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven which no doubt will further erode my faith in the essential reasonableness of mankind.
Many of the key images from the book are burned on my brain: blue skies against the red fields of sorghum, streaked with the blood of Chinese peasants and soldiers; Uncle Arfat screaming as he is skinned alive by the Japanese; a goat seeming to shit ammunition as its tied-shut anus is cut open to expel the contraband bullets hidden within; dead mules floating down the river, their bodies bursting in putrid green pools. They come back to me like unwelcome memories and taint my happy times.
What pushes this over the top from nauseating spectacle to one of my favorites is this: Mo Yan populates his novel with people who commit acts of unimaginable cruelty and self-interest, and these impulses throb just below the surface of their daily existence. Yet he creates characters, who, in all their cruelty and kindness, are quintessentially human. More than anything else I’ve ever read, Red Sorghum claims to reveal the savagery that infuses civilization.
And there you have it. This is my list, and mine alone. If you dig Dean Koontz, Steve King, or Danielle Steele, prefer Women to Ham on Rye or think I’m a total candy-ass for including Thomas Hardy on a list of my favorite “awful” books, by all means please make your own list and leave me be. But aside from that caveat, I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks. If you have any suggestions, please–my “to read” shelf is getting pretty bare.