Sunday, June 10, 2012

Top Five "Dick Lit" Novels of All Time

Awhile back I was browsing a used bookstore, where I happened to see that it had a separate section dubbed "Chick Lit." I've heard the term used many a time to describe works like Eat Pray Love and Prep, but thought that ghetto-izing these books within a bookstore was a little silly. After all, the patriarchy being what it is, there are many "classics" of literature that speak almost exclusively to men. There's nothing wrong with books that explore the male psyche, but they ought to have their own label, too. That then got me thinking about the best Dick Lit tomes, and since I just love top five lists, here they are.

1. Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes.
It's hard to put my thought about this book into words, since it shook me like no other. The main character, essentially a stand-in for the author, is a creative yet fucked-up alcoholic obsessed with women and the New York Giants. This book is a rumination on failure, perhaps the thing that men dread more than any other (and probably why it shook me so much.) Exley lives with the knowledge that he is not the great player on the field, but a mere fan, a schlemiel, a loser whose life is of little import or significance. That's the realization that a majority of men are forced to confront at some point in their lives, and Exley does it with brutal honesty.

2. Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye.
Although Exley wrote the ultimate Dick Lit tract, Bukowski is without a doubt the king of Dick Lit authors. His ouvre routinely celebrates the kind of boozy, unfettered, fornicating lifestyle that many men who have given up their rough and rowdy ways fantasize of returning to. Ham on Rye makes the Dick Lit list because it articulates the raw realities and unpleasantness of adolescent masculinity in its unrestrained lust, constant confusion, and ever-present violence. On top of all that, it deals with the dickiest of Dick Lit subjects, a son's hatred for his father.

3. John Updike, The Rabbit Series.
This is cheating a bit, but the Rabbit books need to be dealt with as a whole. No matter what anyone says, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is not a "typical" person; his infant child drowns in a bathtub (partly due to his negligence), he lucks into a lucrative business career, his teenage girlfriend is burnt alive in a fire, and he even has sex with his own daughter in law. That's not the point, really. Even if he's an outlier, Updike uses Rabbit to explore the destructive nature of male lust, male jealousy at its ugliest, the difficulties of fathers in relating to their sons, and what passes for "success" in the eyes of postwar white suburban American males. There is no character in literature who I have despised and loved so fervently in equal measure, mostly since his mind is rendered so vividly real and believable, misogyny and all.

4. Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint.
Roth is another king of the Dick Lit genre, and there are a whole gaggle of novels that could have made the list. I choose Portnoy's Complaint because it deals so frankly and at times disturbingly with the sexual fantasy lives of men and a taboo topic related closely to it: masturbation.
5. Nick Hornby, High Fidelity.

Unlike the American, middle-aged male angst voiced by the above authors, Hornby takes a gentler yet no less accurate approach to the modern man and his foibles. Protagonist Rob Fleming runs a record store in north London, but is still heir to the male pathologies of Rabbit and Portnoy, although to a less icky extent. He obsesses over his former loves, always makes himself out to be a victim, and engages in the ur-masculine pursuit of record collecting. The novel even more than the film embodies the perspective of the thirtysomething hipsterish man trying to figure out how to commit himself to a woman he loves without losing the freedom he prizes. Gee, I wonder why this book appealed to me so much when I first read it....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You missed one: