The Real America

My friend, Michael O’Neil, in Perth, wants to know what is a good novel to introduce him to America? When Kris and I went to South Africa, I thought reading Alan Paton’s famous novel, , was the ticket — but it was from a different era. So, who has some good recommendations for Michael?

We’ve been painting the house recently, and I have been listening to and enjoying Wendell Berry’s That Distant Land. For me, it is a window into another time and place, and seems to evoke a particular vision of a “real” America. Part of the book’s burden is that this America has largely passed into history. Last year I read Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead and Home and had a similar experience of being transported into a bygone rural/small town USA.

In one sense, of course, there are as many “real” Americas as there are Americans. But, as someone who has never visited the US—something I hope to rectify one day, God-willing—I wonder if there are particular novels—or movies perhaps—which evoke “contemporary America” in the same deeply and profoundly human way in which Berry and Robinson have portrayed their characters and landscapes/environments.

Any recommendations?

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  • For understanding America as a whole, I really like Michener’s books. Two especially stand out. For east coast there’s Chesapeake and for Western US there’s Centennial.

    Not quite up to date contemporary–especially as the great bulk of both is historical fiction– but they show the streams of characters that make up what is now contemporary.

  • Brandon Smith

    On a recent trip to New Orleans, I had an experience with a book that really captured America to me. I bumped into John Goodman on the flight, and it turned out that he was actually in the film version of the book. My purpose for the trip was to go to the National Association of Gifted Children, and the book happened to be about a gifted child. Its cover has the main character, peering out from it, so it literally leapt out at me. All of the combined made it a powerful read, but the synopsis of the book is about a boy who lost his father in the twin towers, going around Manhattan, meeting different people and hearing their stories searching for a missing key that belonged to his father. Both the book and film are powerful pictures metaphorically and realistically of a post 9/11 American culture trying to find it’s way in a collage of people. The book is call Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Read the book and then see the movie! Even the way Jonathan writes reflect much of the condition of America today because it is so nontraditional and it also is from the perspective of the boy. Great read!

  • Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In addition to it being one the best-written books I’ve ever read, I think it gives one a very strong idea of the identity, culture, and history of the American ethos.

  • lesa Engelthaler

    Anything by Flannery O’Connor.

  • I can’t really contribute much, never having been to the States myself. However, even from an outside perspective, I’d suggest that anything that’s supposed to capture the feel of the “current” United States would have to have been written after September 2001 (which rules out Michener, Flannery O’Connor, Steinbeck et. al.).

  • Cristoph, I disagree. Because in order to understand America after September 11, one has to have a sense of the sort of American character that led to our particular internal and external responses–which as far as I can tell really confuses a lot of the world. I think people far, far underestimate both American history as a shaping force of our present identity and the kinds of people who came here and became established here. That’s a subset of particular kinds of people from all over the world.

    Another big issue for me–which Flannery O’Connor brings to mind–is that it really is hard to generalize about contemporary America. Flannery O’Connor wrote about people as foreign to me as if they were from another country. New Yorkers are not like folks from Los Angeles. There is a Western identity and there is a Southern and an Eastern and Midwestern.

  • Some more thoughts that come to mind:

    Movies are probably more helpful than books, honestly, as pop fiction is too caricatured and literary fiction is often as well, though in different ways. I’m actually thinking sitcoms might be the best insight. The Middle and Everybody Hates Christ for middle/working class. Modern Family for upper middle class. There are likely other examples in this category but those three shows are what come to mind and reflect a whole lot of good insights into American personality.

  • Don DeLillo’s White Noise offers a pretty humorous but accurate portrayal of American suburbia circa late 1980s I believe. Still rings true today.

  • Percival

    I agree that Chesapeake is a good choice but I hated Centennial. Michener is a good choice for historical novels because he covers so much.

  • Albion

    Which America? White upper middle class America? Black America? Native American America? The experience of the privileged and the marginalized will read very differently. And America is now post-Christendom so the dominant narrative that formed the baby boom generation no longer has any purchase. The post-Christendom, post-modern America is running on the fumes of a nominally Christian America. What it will be a generation from now is anyone’s guess. All to say that no one book can capture contemporary America. It’s a patchwork of self-determined narratives.

  • Bill

    It’s not a novel and is 50 years old -Travels With Charlie by Steinbeck

  • This is way out of left field, I know, and I wouldn’t even mention it were it not for Brandon (#2) on post-9/11. While it is set in a fictional universe, Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica series is essentially an exposition on the psychological and social impact of 9/11, and the way it is shaping our society, particularly our theology and politics. I would say those themes are explored most effectively in the miniseries and the first two seasons.

    Not what he is looking for, I’m sure, but thought I’d throw it out there.

  • Game of Thrones? Not much for detail of course, but catches the attitude.

  • John W Frye

    Pat Conroy’s *Beach Music* or *South of Broad*

  • scotmcknight

    Michael, these folks are more knowledgeable than I about Americana novels, but I would like to weigh in to say that two great American novelists who tap into deep sensibilities are Mark Twain, esp The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn though I like Tom Sawyer the most. Then Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is a brilliant book, a kind of tragedy of human striving. While they may not describe Americana the way some others do, they will guide you into great American themes.

    Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are amazingly complex and demand re-reading that leads time and time again into deeper perceptions, but she’s more concerned with the tragic contradictions of life than Americana.

    It seems to me Updike’s Rabbit books are worth reading too… though I’ve done nothing but dabble in them, but many think they will lead the reader into the American male experience. There’s a guy named Walker Percy, or Percy Walker can’t remember, who has become a favorite for English teachers.

    When we went to South Africa I thought I would read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country to get a feel for the country but, alas, I was about 50 years behind where it was. So I read a novel by a fella named Coetzee, or something like that, and I have to say it was almost terrorizing to the soul to read that guy…

  • Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections or Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe triology are both well-written snapshots of contemporary America.

  • MatthewS

    Ha – I’ve been around this blog too long. I was going to use “Mark Twain” and “Americana” in a sentence. Tom and Huck certainly live on in popular imagination.

    I haven’t read him in years, but Louis L’Amour told tales of the Old West that are probably more myth than reality but the mythology resonated with something in many American’s imagination. I recommend Flint

  • abk

    I think Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories give insight into the (Indian, often Bengali) immigrant experience in America at different stages of assimilation. They are also beautifully written.

    John Updike’s Rabbit series is also another good point of access to Americana.

  • Rick G.

    I know it’s dated, but ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ by Harper Lee still feels very American to me. Both the Good and the Bad in it.

  • E.G.

    East of Eden. Period.

  • Michael O’Neil

    Wow, thanks – what a lot of suggestions and ideas. It has been years (final year of high school) since I read East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath, and some of Steinbeck’s shorter novels. Grapes of Wrath really impacted me – as did Roots, which I read the same year.

    And I have recently purchased Updike’s Run, Rabbit, Run (think that’s the name). Enjoyed Battlestar Galactica but didn’t make the 9/11 connection… I read Tom Sawyer just last year, and Huck is on the list. The next one I was going to read was Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing and/or March – but there is an Aussie connection there.

    I think I will read East of Eden again, Run Rabbit, Huck Finn…

    I was interested in 9/11 as a marker for “the” American psyche. It was a truly awful event and I can certainly understand its ongoing reverberation, but did it really “change” the American soul?

    I think the most disturbing recommendation was ‘watch the sitcoms’ (Patrick #7). If I can quote Scot: O my…

  • JoeyS

    They aren’t novels but Bill Bryson’s, I’m A Stranger Here Myself, and The Lost Continent are both good primers on America.

  • Bonfire of the Vanities

  • T

    Interesting question and good responses. I don’t know if there’s a wrong response to this. I live in Palm Beach County and was born and raised here. It would be hard to answer the question just about Palm Beach County! We have loads of agriculture and associated communities in the western part of the county, lots of it owned and run by big sugar companies and worked by transient and illegal workers. To the east we have Palm Beach and Jupiter islands, which is home to some of the world’s wealthiest people, who employ everyone from the law firms who worked Bush v. Gore to the mix of legal and illegal hourly service workers who do the work of cleaning and maintaining clothes, homes and landscaping. We’re just an hour or so north of Miami, which is another mini-nation to itself, with its own history, culture and even dominant language.

    So what is Americana? As someone said above, it depends on whom and where you ask. I think modern stories that relay the grind of it all, the extremes of wealth and hours working and consumption, as well as some of the many contradictions (obsession with physical appearance, but widespread obesity; etc.)–any of these stories work to help form an accurate picture.