Esquire recently posted an item on its website: "The 80 Books Every Man Should Read."
One thing I have to give the staff credit for is its honesty about the nature of the list: "An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published."
That confession leaves them free from the standard response to such lists -- How could you leave off [insert personal favorite here]?!?!
For instance, I could complain that they include Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums rather than On the Road. I am not arguing quality, just the perceived essentialness to American masculinity. If read at the right age, On the Road can send young men off into fantasies of hitting the highway and seeing the country and having adventures. If read at a later point in life, the novel can make men grateful they got rid of friends like those a long time ago.
But I cannot really make that complaint because the producers of the list did not make claims of objective quality or worth. They simply made a list of books they think men should read.
However, I did notice a couple of peculiarities. There is just one book by a woman. It is a collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor. It seems that men, heterosexual or homosexual, should want to read about the world from a female perspective, since they make up about half the population. I would venture a couple of suggestions. Perhaps Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. For something less grim or stark, the list could include a personal favorite, Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, which is a funny, bi-curious coming-of-age romp set in the 1960s and 1970s. (I could say Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, but then everyone has heard of that one. Alther's book is funnier and less well-known.)
The other peculiarity: The absence of a book by an American Indian. I say this because three of the books have Indians in them: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, and Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall. [Correction: Five books have American Indian characters. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien features one American Indian soldier. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey is narrated by an American Indian character.] I have not read Harrison's book, so I cannot comment on its depiction of American Indians. But McMurtry's most famous novel has the problematic character of Blue Duck, a psychotic killer who is a mixed-blood Comanche man who is a major obstacle for the novel's protagonists. Blood Meridian has no major Indian characters, and their depiction is no worse than that of the murdering, soulless leaders of our band of "heroes." But the creators of the Esquire list produced an odd blurb with which to praise the novel and suggest its tone:
Just try sleeping after the scene in which the Apaches thunder over the hills wearing the dresses of the brides they have killed.
Every page of that novel drips with blood, it seems, but of all the scenes of terror and butchery perpetrated by the band of Americans making their way across the West to the Pacific Ocean, the list-makers chose a scene that suggests the Apaches are the scary ones. I would say, try sleeping after reading any page of that novel, which is one of the grimmest, most nihilistic exercises of naturalism I have read in American literature. In my Goodreads review of it I said this:
This is an exercise in nihilistic naturalism with prose that is sometimes poetic and other times a rambling trainwreck of sentences pretending to profundity. If Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Sam Peckinpah had congress in some kind of demonic three-way, this novel would be their child.
The events are sometimes engaging and compelling, but just as often they are predictable. Just about any thing (human or animal) introduced will be shot, stabbed, scalped, or hanged within a few pages. It has some memorable characters, but it offers too little insight to the workings of their minds (at least for me).
In the theater of masculinity that Esquire presents with this list of novels, the American Indian plays the role of savage. But American Indian men have experienced trials and triumphs that are worthy of inclusion in this list. They have had experiences other men, regardless of race, could relate to. If I could add one novel that would match the general tone of other titles in this list -- the titles tend toward alienation, moral struggle, and conflicted relationships with wives and fathers -- I would add James Welch's Winter in the Blood. Published in 1974 it is the story of an American Indian man fighting his way through the grief over the separate deaths of his father and brother years before, struggling
If I could add, instead, my favorite James Welch novel, that would be Fools Crow. One thing I like most about it is its setting: Its events take place before the Crow Indians have been overwhelmed by the Americans. There is no major white character in it. This is a story about an Indian world -- it is being invaded by another world, granted, but the natives are the center of the story. It is the story of two young men who choose different paths: one who chooses life, love, and family; and one chooses pride, anger, and revenge. It is filled with sex, violence, comedy, tragedy, hope, and history.