Why is there so much excellent fiction about New York in the 1980s? Whither goest the 1990s Manhattan novelist? Too early to call it on the Aughts. Remembering the wealthy gore of AMERICAN PSYCHO called to mind several other beloved, guilty pleasure-ish, I can’t-believe-these-people-really-exist novels that the Literary Man has read over the years. There’s undeniably a voyeuristic pleasure — ala Mad Men — in seeing wealthy, beautiful, successful people crash and fucking burn. We want to be them, or, perhaps, simply want to watch them explode. So without further ado, let’s celebrate — and censure — the Top Ten WASP-y Novels.
Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, this is story of young WASP-y Newland Archer (yes, that’s seriously his name: Newland) who is pledged to marry the quiet, smoking hot May Welland. Enter May’s scandalous, lascivious cousin Ellen, who’s recently arrived in New York after some hazy Russian-seeming scandal. Newland, of course, wants to bone both wife and cousin, which obviously complicates things. Keep in mind that this story takes place in 1870, which was quite a while before the Internet was invented. Newport, Rhode Island is also involved, which is like the WASP moon that faithfully orbits solar New York City. An excellent book for people who like love stories.
Written by John Knowles, published in 1959, this is the ur-prep school novel. Gene, narrator, begins the story when he returns to a thinly-disguised Philips Exeter fifteen years after his graduation. The story then slides back in time to the summer of 1942, when Gene and his best friend Phineas, were only sixteen years old. This novel is a refreshingly innocent take on prep school and boyfriend friendship, before drugs and academic pressure and all the other contemporary Dead Poets Society-cliches destroyed the Romantic allure of living in the middle of nowhere surrounded by knowledge and trees and tweed and your instructors’ attractive, buxom forty-year-old wives. A literary arcadia, if you will. The novel is funny and extremely sad, in ways that are very difficult to foresee while you’re buried in the text. A must-read for any young Literary Man
The title of this 1934 John O’Hara novel comes from W. Somerset Maugham’s retelling of an old classic, which runs something like this: “A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” That is SO bad ass. What you don’t get from the epigraph is that the novel takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania in the late 1920s. It’s full of husbands and wives and booze and cars and sex and then all of it falls apart. Think about Pottersville in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and imagine that this novel came out around the same time.
All right. This is where things get intense, and by intense I mean flooded with cocaine. Again, what was up with the 1980s? Can someone explain this decade?Michiko Kakutani called it “one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read in a long time.” This is basically a retelling of Dante’s Inferno set in early 1980s Los Angeles, except that Dante is an eighteen-year-old kid named Clay who’s just finished his first year at what was essentially Hampshire College. Clay comes home, i.e. descends into outer circles of hell, and witnesses the accelerating depravity of his old friends’ lives. We’re hitting all the big ones in this book: drugs, prostitution, snuff films, rape, murder, Ray-Bans, pop music, drugs, and the eerie opening line “People are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles.” No fucking shit. Come on. This is a classic! Ellis was only 21 years old when Simon & Schuster published it.
- Tom Wolfe. Check.
- Masters of the Universe. Check.
- Race-relations in 1980s New York. Check.
- Unimaginable wealth. Check.
- Park Avenue Society Bullshit. Check.
- Mistress of Italian descent. Check.
- Awesome scene where Sherman McCoy tries to explain to his eight-year-old daughter what “bond traders” actually do. Check.
- Pedestrian prose. Check.
- Patent imitation of Charles Dickens. Check.
- Indisputably zeitgeisty. Check.
5. GONE WITH THE WIND
Whoa! Didn’t see this one coming, did you? Well, let’s take a look at the word WASP, which is of course an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Technically, you don’t even need to be wealthy to be WASP-y, though we all know better. The acronym has obviously evolved over the years, and, in a way, it seems to exclude Southern society unfairly. Therefore, we’re adding Margaret Mitchell’s epic masterpiece GONE WITH THE WIND to this list. No further description or summary of this 1936 Pulitzer Prize winner is necessary. Its stranglehold on our imagination and cultural consciousness is only going to strengthen with time.
4. THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER
This next entry isn’t a novel, but no list about WASP fiction is complete with a reference to the total master of the subject: uber-WASP John Cheever. Born in Quincy, Mass, kicked out of prep school, Cheever spent the rest of his life writing fiction, guzzling gin, sleeping with men and women, and hating himself every minute along the way. “The Swimmer” is pretty much required reading in any MFA program across this nation, as is “Goodbye, My Brother” and the Literary Man’s personal favorite, “The Five Thirty-Eight.” Lots of boozing, sleeping around, New York City and its constellation of unhappy, well-mowed suburbs, lots of commuting on trains, and lots and lots of sleeping with secretaries. Mad Men the series would not exist without the work of John Cheever.
3. BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
This is how it starts: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.” More coke, more 1980s, more New York. Those WASPs sure love their blow! The drug-and-nightlife portraiture notwithstanding, this is really a bildungsroman about a young man coming to terms with the meaning of adulthood and its relation to the death of the family; its about loss and grieving; it’s about the promise of New York of the consequence of believing in it. The city, that is. The Unknowable City.
2. THE BELL JAR
Already an accomplished, prize-winning poet, Sylvia Plath’s genius was forever established with her first and only novel THE BELL JAR in 1963 (the book was originally published under the psuedonym Victoria Lucas and was only published with Plath’s name after her death). The story follows Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the wealthy suburbs of Boston, who wins a prestigious internship at a glamorous magazine in New York City in the early 1960s. Esther feels alienated from her peers and doesn’t enjoy the life in New York that she had imagined, and which her peers seem to enjoy. She’s haunted by the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whose death by electric chair foreshadows Esther’s own electro-convulsive therapy. Wealthy, white women having problems: this is great fodder for WASPy fiction. It’s of course sad to read about how much this book parallels Plath’s own life, but THE BELL JAR remains a cornerstone of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant literature.
Which brings us to the Number One WASP-y novel of all time: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY. As you’ve all undoubtedly read it, pored over it, retpyed its pages to learn the secret of its magic, there’s little point in recapping the slim 218 pages. A few random thoughts about this gem. When Nick turns 30, 2/3 thirds of the way through the book, he says something awesomely pessimistic like “Before me stretched the new road of a portentous, menacing decade.” Early in the book, when Tom and Nick drive into New York with Myrtle (aka sex-in-a-dress, soon to be played by Isla Fisher), they drive to Tom’s apartment on 158th Street. Um, that’s totally not where Tom would be driving his mistress today. West Harlem or Hamilton Heights, whatever you want to call it, is still definitely transitional today. But it was evidently where you took your mistress in the 1920s if you were as muddy rich as Tom Buchanan. Other thoughts, Gatsby often wears a pink seersucker suit. Yes, pink. And the word “Trimalchio” appears in the book twice, revealing Fitzgerald’s Ivy League education and preference for the title “Trimalchio on West Egg,” a horrible title that his brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins wisely rejected. Long lost loves, money, polo-playing idiots, Long Island, cocktail parties, prohibition, World War I, girls from Kentucky (yes, Daisy and Jordan are both Kentuckians!), this is the greatest novel of the Twentieth Century and easily the Top WASP Novel of All-Time. So read. Enjoy. Cringe whenever you see a pink Polo collar popped to the skys!