The best contemporary novels featuring bars where I'd like to get a drink

Why am I passionate about this?

I loved bars before I could drink. Maybe it was a steady diet of Cheers reruns as a child. Or perhaps it was growing up in Los Angeles, a city without a center, a city of cars, a city that seemed—at least when I was a child—to lack real community. Bars, in my imagination, provided that. So when I started actually finding myself in bars—and often working in them—I also found myself writing fiction, and those bars ended up in that fiction. In each of my novels, a bar is a gathering place for those wanting a church sans theology, a place, where, yes, everyone knows your name.  


I wrote...

Book cover of The Swill

What is my book about?

Port Kydd, 1929. Joshua Rivers, his pregnant wife Lily, his criminal sister Olive, a geriatric dog Orla, and a cast of ne'er-do-wells eke out life in The Swill, a speakeasy passed down through the Rivers family. Outside, political and race wars rage in The Bonny, the rough Irish neighborhood where they have always lived. But when Olive's in trouble and asks her brother to help her pull a job—one with roots that reach way back into the Rivers family history—who will take the fall?

Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish, said of The Swill, “I can’t resist: The Swill is swell. It reads like the princely offspring of Chandler and Lehane.”

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Mexican Tree Duck

Michael Keenan Gutierrez Why did I love this book?

Crime novels, like bars, live or die on their vibe. The plot may have rat-sized holes and the ending might spill into deux ex machina, but if you dig the atmosphere, you’ll forgive almost any narrative sin. Not that The Mexican Tree Duck commits any worthy of confession. You’re in safe hands with CW Sughrue, part-time PI and owner of the Hell Roaring Liquor Store and Lounge up in Montana. What I love about Crumley is the lovely, complex language that pours out like gin into a martini glass. “The first time I set foot in the Hell Roaring as the sixties drifted, late as usual and dying, into the seventies, I found that soft autumn light filling the magic afternoon easiness of the bar.” 

By James Crumley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mexican Tree Duck as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE DASHIELL HAMMETT AWARD

One night up in Montana, C.W. Sughrue sets his seedy bar’s pricey jukebox in front of an oncoming freight train. When predictable results ensue, he needs to find a way to make some money and pay back the jukebox company. So even though Sughrue’s officially retired from P.I. work, he picks up one small-time case involving some kidnapped fish. That fishy trail leads to a much bigger case involving a Texas politician's kidnapped wife, a valuable piece of pre-Columbian pottery, and a single mother who packs guns and stolen goods in her infant son's…


Book cover of Jesus' Son

Michael Keenan Gutierrez Why did I love this book?

On any given day, this is my favorite book with one of my favorite bars, The Vine, a dive that Johnson describes as “like a railroad club car that had somehow run itself off the tracks into a swamp of time where it awaited the blows of the wrecking ball.” Is it a nice place? No. Would you take a date here? Not if you wanted them to respect you. Could you find yourself in mortal danger? Absolutely. But amongst the addicts and runaways, the small-time crooks and ne’er do wells, you’ll find moments of beauty that transcend the pain of everyday life, becoming, in its best moments, like reading scripture.

By Denis Johnson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Jesus' Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jesus' Son is a visionary chronicle of dreamers, addicts, and lost souls. These stories tell of spiralling grief and transcendence, of rock bottom and redemption, of getting lost and found and lost again. The narrator of these interlinked stories is a young, unnamed man, reeling from his addiction to heroin and alcohol, his mind at once clouded and made brilliantly lucid by these drugs. In the course of his adventures, he meets an assortment of people, who seem as alienated and confused as he; sinners, misfits, the lost, the damned, the desperate and the forgotten. Our of their bleak, seemingly…


Book cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

Michael Keenan Gutierrez Why did I love this book?

Mosely’s debut is drenched in barrooms and none better than John’s Place, a speakeasy behind a convenience store that has to stay a speakeasy in 1948 because the owner has trouble with the law. A perfect metaphor for the Black experience: even when it's legal, it’s still illegal for Black Americans. I love this book for its voice: it just sounds so cool. “They didn’t have many groceries, and no fresh produce or dairy goods, but she’d sell you what was there and if you knew the right words, or were a regular, then she’d let you in the club through the back door. But if you though that you should be able to get in on account of your name, or your clothes or maybe your bankbook, well, Hattie kept a straight razor in her apron pocket.”

By Walter Mosley,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Devil in a Blue Dress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Devil in a Blue Dress honors the tradition of the classic American detective novel by bestowing on it a vivid social canvas and the freshest new voice in crime writing in years, mixing the hard-boiled poetry of Raymond Chandler with the racial realism of Richard Wright to explosive effect.


Book cover of V.

Michael Keenan Gutierrez Why did I love this book?

First Pynchon. Favorite Pynchon. Opens up on Christmas Eve, 1955 with our hero Benny Profane hanging out in the Sailor’s Grave, a navy bar in Norfolk, where all of the “barmaids” are called Beatrice, including the owner, who posits “that just as small children call all females mother, so sailors, in their way equally helpless, should call barmaids Beatrice.” She tests this theory by putting rubber nipples on the end of the taps and having sailors chug from them during Suck Hour. And this is just the start of Pynchon flexing his hilarious and bizarre imagination in this picaresque novel. I come back to V. whenever I find myself marooned in a sea of depressing fiction, because it cradles me in love and joy.  

By Thomas Pynchon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked V. as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first novel from the great, incomparable Thomas Pynchon.

The quest for V. sweeps us through sixty years and a panorama of Alexandria, Paris, Malta, Florence, Africa and New York. But who, where or what is V.? Bawdy, sometimes sad and frequently hilarious, V. as become a modern classic.

'The greatest, wildest, most infuriating author of his generation' Ian Rankin, Guardian

'To read V. today is to experience Pynchon anew' New Yorker


Book cover of White Teeth

Michael Keenan Gutierrez Why did I love this book?

Maybe I just want to have a drink with Zadie Smith. She could tell me how she managed to write such a breathtaking novel by the age of 23. In this fictional encounter, I’d ask her about O’Connell’s, the pub in White Teeth frequented by her constantly put-upon war vets Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. “O’Connell’s is the kind of place family men come to for a different kind of family. Unlike blood relations, it is necessary here to earn one’s passion in the community; it takes years of devoted fucking around, time-wasting, lying-about, shooting the breeze, watching paint dry—far more dedication than men invest in the careless moment of procreation.” The whole book is this keenly observed, and this funny. 

By Zadie Smith,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked White Teeth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most talked about fictional debuts of recent years, "White Teeth" is a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, adored by critics and readers alike. Dealing - among many other things - with friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, one brown mouse, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle, it is a life-affirming, riotous must-read of a book.


You might also like...

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in private investigators, veterans, and heroin and heroin addiction?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about private investigators, veterans, and heroin and heroin addiction.

Private Investigators Explore 299 books about private investigators
Veterans Explore 84 books about veterans
Heroin And Heroin Addiction Explore 31 books about heroin and heroin addiction