Some of us who have time on our hands these days are dutifully catching up with literary masterpieces we’ve neglected until now — books that I think of collectively as “War and Mobymarch.” That’s admirable. But if, like me, you have an itch for vicarious adventure delivered by fiction that is both realistic (no swords, sorcery or time travel) and a cut above the tried and trashy, I say go ahead and scratch it.
The following handful of engrossing novels should be able to take your mind off social distancing, quotas on paper products, the economic downturn and worse.
Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” was a 1951 bestseller that transferred well to stage and screen. The novel makes no bones about its debts to Melville’s “Billy Budd” and Conrad’s “Lord Jim,” each of which is mentioned by one of Wouk’s characters. That honesty is refreshing, as is the author’s variation on the theme of shipboard tyranny (the Caine is a U.S. minesweeper plying the Pacific during World War II). My only qualm is that the dictatorial villain, Captain Queeg, may foil your escape by reminding you of an actual present-day American boogeyman with a five-letter surname. Yet the tale is so well-told that the risk is worth taking.
Anne Perry’s “A Breach of Promise” (1998) belongs to one of her two mystery series set in Victorian England. It features private eye William Monk, an amnesiac whose memory is in tatters but whose crime-solving skills have remained intact. As the title suggests, the plot centers on a lawsuit over a broken promise of marriage, a complaint that was often filed in self-defense. A man who unilaterally ended an engagement, the thinking went, was most likely recoiling from his discovery (or belief) that the lady in question was more like a tramp; by going to court, she was proclaiming her innocence. The surprise Perry leads up to is among the best ever sprung by a writer not named Agatha Christie.
The picaresque “Nicholas Nickleby” (1839) is Charles Dickens’s shallowest novel — and his most fun to read. Nicholas is a stick figure whose upper lip stays stiff throughout a series of daunting setbacks, including a term at a school whose name says it all: Dotheboys Hall. But you’ll hardly mind the hero’s one-dimensionality because the novel belongs to its comical supporting cast.
There is Nicholas’s mother, a free-associating chatterbox whose every utterance confounds the rational mind. There is the Infant Phenomenon, who strains to pass herself off as such in her family’s theatrical troupe despite having teethed several years ago. And there is the womanizing Mr. Mantalini, whose gift for oleaginous flattery always persuades his long-suffering wife to take him back.
Only 27 when the book came out, Dickens was already at the height of his prodigious verbal powers, as he demonstrates when the members of that same theatrical company aim their performances at a London impresario who might book them: “Mr. Crummles died point blank at him; and when the two guards came in to take the body off . . . it was seen to open its eyes and glance at the London manager.” Weighing in at 800-plus pages, “Nicholas Nickleby” has plenty of escape to offer.
Rebecca West is best-known for “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” her magisterial examination of the nexus between Yugoslavia and the two 20th-century world wars, and for covering the Nuremberg Trials for the New Yorker. She also wrote six novels, the best of which, “The Fountain Overflows” (1956), was serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal.
“The Fountain Overflows” draws heavily on West’s Edwardian childhood, which was fractured by the absconding of her father, a brilliant but troubled journalist. West’s first-person narrator qualifies as an anti-amnesiac, with a memory so powerful that she can evoke not just the look of the past but also the prevailing mind-set. People felt a continuity of sorts, she points out, between a train and a horse-drawn carriage, with a mechanical hauler (the locomotive) taking the place of an animal one. When the automobile came along, though, it seemed to repeal the laws of physics: “The miracle of not being pulled by anything, of the nothingness in front of the driver, was more staggering than can now be believed.”
Powerful as Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” may be, Scott Smith’s first novel might have served that title better. In fact, it’s called “A Simple Plan” (1993), and its plot is driven by the desire — which seems to have something to do with the extravagant bounty of our national landscape — to get filthy rich while hardly lifting a finger.
In rural Ohio, three men stumble upon the snow-covered site of an airplane crash. Amid the wreckage they find $4 million in cash. They agree to keep the money, tell no one, lie low for six months, and see what happens. For all its simplicity, their plan unravels in a way that leads to betrayal and murder. This is a thriller that manages to be true to the genre while striking a note of tragedy, American-style.
My own simple plan is for us to read our way through the rest of this pandemic together. I encourage you to share your recommendations for smart escapist fiction below.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
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