I wonder why I freeze up whenever I’m asked the question, “What books are your favorite?” It happened again the other day when a Lithuanian reporter wanted to know about my literary influences. My mind went blank for a few minutes. Oddly, I’ll often feel a sense of mild panic.
Perhaps it’s that the truth sounds cliché. “I love Dostoevsky.” I love the big books about universal ideas. I often wish I had something more creative or exotic to say than this. Perhaps it’s that, when I read the lists produced by other writers, I find so many titles that are new to me. I feel I don’t have new titles to share, only the ones that people already know.
Of course, that’s not true. It just seems true because my favorite books stay with me, permanent parts of my consciousness, invisible to me, in a way, as they shade the lens of my perception. Still, shouldn’t I be able to just rattle them off immediately, and with pride? And why is it that I remember books I love often hours, sometimes days after I’m asked, “What books do you love?”
The book I love about as much as any other but usually forget, like the child I know can do well enough on their own, is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I first learned about this book in 1999 while teaching reading in Ann Arbor. I was struck by the title: a sentence, one I believed I understood immediately.
This book is perhaps the one that had the strongest influence on me in the years before I started writing The Fugue. For many years, I used it in college English classes, long before I had gathered that “fiction shouldn’t be used” (It should…read about that here!). In fact, The Fugue borrows (or…depending on your take…steals) McCullers’ episodic structure of vignettes that add up to a novel . Anyone who knows the book and reads The Fugue will sense further influence, no small homage to this unbelievable book.
The characters are so deep and interesting, so colorful yet also ordinary, obviously from the same town, one that’s thoroughly Southern but could exist in most parts of America. A deaf mute who works in a jewelry store. A young girl who aspires—her aspiration tragic from the get go—to be a classical musician. A roughneck who wants to organize labor but seems unable to work. An abusive Greek epicure. The owner of a diner, a finite observer with enormous emotional baggage. A black communist. His prophet-like daughter. Another woman obsessed with making her daughter into a Hollywood doll (a daughter eventually maimed by a boy with a gun). An overbearing wife harboring a tumor the size of an infant.
The themes? Poverty. Race. Suicide. Sexuality. Homosexuality (kinda) and asexuality (maybe) and hypersexuality (oddly). Femininity. Opulence. Self-aggrandizement. Masculinity. Codependence. Alcoholism. Western Civilization. Philosophy. Domestic violence. Identity (spiritual, cultural, national…pick a number). Communication. Silence. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter only appears to be a portrait of a community but is, in fact, a deep and ever-searching philosophical novel.
I’m writing this post to remember placing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the top of my list of favorite and influential books next time I speak to someone about it. Also, if you’ve never read it, here’s one to put on your list for 2016.