The best gritty American novels

Matthew Stokoe Author Of Colony of Whores
By Matthew Stokoe

The Books I Picked & Why

Last Exit to Brooklyn

By Hubert Selby Jr.

Book cover of Last Exit to Brooklyn

Why this book?

Last Exit to Brooklyn tells the stories of a group of characters living on the edge of society in 1950s New York – drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, he-men struggling with their sexuality, and average Joes struggling just to survive. The prose is sublimely beautiful, and the world it paints is one rarely seen now in print. The book was a profound influence on me – it showed me how important it is to have compassion for your characters, no matter how dark or damned they might be.

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The Big Sleep

By Raymond Chandler

Book cover of The Big Sleep

Why this book?

Chandler wrote about Southern California, the 1930s and 40s, crime (generally amongst the wealthier classes), and personal honour. Add a good helping of Hollywood and the movies and what’s not to like? His hero, Philip Marlow, is the ultimate outsider, seeking not just a solution to whatever investigation he happens to have been handed, but also the answer to the question that haunts all of Chandler’s work – how to live life as a good man. There were many writers writing crime fiction alongside Chandler, but his superb, almost poetic, use of language, and the flashes of dry wit that he scattered like firecrackers throughout his books left them in the dust.

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The Man with the Golden Arm

By Nelson Algren

Book cover of The Man with the Golden Arm

Why this book?

Algren has been called a proletarian writer. Working primarily in Chicago from the 1930s to the 1950s, he was intensely concerned with the plight of the common man. His milieux were the gambling dens, the sawdust bars, the decaying hooker-prowled streets, the beat-down police stations, the shooting galleries, the slums, the cheap walk-up flats where broken men and women fought each other in desperate battles to survive one more miserable day. His characters were the poor, the ignorant, the addicted, tramps, bums, card sharps, petty crims, accidental murderers... But in all of them he found something human, something that might have been good, might have been worthy of a decent life – if only it had been given half a chance.

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Less Than Zero

By Bret Easton Ellis

Book cover of Less Than Zero

Why this book?

Living in London under Margaret Thatcher and seemingly permanent grey skies, Ellis’s tale of rich kids in Los Angeles doing little else but fucking, drinking, taking drugs, and hanging out at expensive restaurants and cool parties made me want to sell everything I owned (very little back then) and jump on a plane. I often regret that I didn’t. Ellis’s book captures perfectly the strange mix of manic determination and tranquilised-around-the-edges ennui that I later found so characteristic of Los Angeles.

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Post Office

By Charles Bukowski

Book cover of Post Office

Why this book?

Bukowski was already known, in a small way, as a poet and underground columnist when he wrote his first novel, the autobiographical Post Office. It was given to me by a friend when I lived in London and it just blew me away. The book – an account of Bukowski’s ten years as a postman in LA –  is a rollicking ride full of barroom brawls, boozy beddings, and battles with uncaring authority. Set in cheap, shitty rooms, populated by rejects and losers, I’d never read anything like it before. Bukowski seems to write about nothing in particular – certainly there is almost no plot – but he writes so well, and with such humour and humanness, that before you realise it, you’re fifty pages in and hooked.

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