There are plenty of things about the South that I’m either indifferent to (NASCAR, sweet tea) or ashamed of (a history of slavery, segregation and racism; Ernest). But I’m certainly proud of our writing tradition, from William Faulkner to Alice Walker. Here are 10 great novels and collections of short fiction by Southern writers, set in the 20th Century South.
As with any of the lists on my blog, these are simply my favorites. We do plenty of lists in Paste magazine, all of which are researched, vetted and argued over endlessly. But what follows are simply 10 books that were a joy for me to devour. As you head to the beach, consider taking one of these with you:
10. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
Ellen is one of the most memorable child narrators, opening the novel with the line, “When I was young, I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” After her mother’s suicide, the precocious 11-year-old raised by an abusive father. But her story has enough humor and hope to overcome those miserable circumstances.
9. The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure by Jack Pendarvis
This collection of short stories is the only book here funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces (#4) and Paste contributor Pendarvis’ characters sometimes make Ignatius J. Reilly seem downright reasonable.
8. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The most compelling read on this list, Frazier tells a thrilling tale with the kind of prose that makes you want to put it in a vase on the center of your dining-room table. Plot, meet style. You two should hang out more often.
7. Run With the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams
Sams is a physician who published Run With the Horsemen, the first in his Porter Osborne Jr. trilogy, when he was 60. He continued to practice medicine for for 24 more years, finally retiring in 2006. The novel takes place in Fayette County, Ga., during the Depression.
6. Land o’ Goshen by Charles McNair
OK, I’m biased on this one since Charles is a dear friend and our books editor, but I read this long before I met him, and it would have been on the list regardless. (It was also nominated for a Pulitzer.) It’s a witty and wise post-apocalyptic tale told from a 14-year-old refugee of the Second Civil War started by fundamentalist Christians.
5. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Lee’s book is one of the most beautiful stories dealing with race, isolation and disenfranchisement ever written. I’ll never forget watching my mother in a theatrical version.
4. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
When Toole committed suicide in 1969, he left behind this gem of a novel, which his mother thankfully got into the hands of Walker Percy. Ignatius J. Reilly is an overweight, overly opinionated, and completely absurd protagonist who wanders throughout a world of spectacular characters, disdainfully looking for gainful employment.
3. Raney by Clyde Edgerton
Edgerton is a gifted writer, and Raney is his masterpiece. It’s the story of a marriage of a Southern Baptist girl from small-town North Carolina with a liberal from Atlanta. It’s a big that will make you grin ear-to-ear and fall in love with both its characters, even as they exasperate each other.
2. The Last Gentleman/The Second Coming by Walker Percy
Most people point to The Moviegoer as Percy’s best novel, but I love these two books covering the life of Will Barrett. I read these right after college, and the way Barrett is paralyzed by life’s possibilities struck way too close to home. But really, just about any Percy book would have made my list.
1. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
No one before or since has been as talented in poking around the darker shadows of our souls looking for redemption. O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South is full of wonderfully revealing tales. My personal favorites include “Parker’s Back,” “The River” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”
Let me know what you think of these and other great Southern novels and short stories.