The best books about misfits and wretched excess

D.B.C. Pierre Author Of Vernon God Little: A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death
By D.B.C. Pierre

The Books I Picked & Why

Jernigan

By David Gates

Jernigan

Why this book?

Being lured into another world by a strong first-person voice turns a book into a wide-open door, and I love going through strange doors. This one opens onto a richly detailed middle-class mess who’s also an exceptional host, recently widowed alcoholic single-parent Peter Jernigan. He takes us on a ride through suburban New Jersey as passengers in his mind, narrating his life’s unravelling with brutal whimsy and humour. This was one of the most helpless relationships I’ve had with a character in a book. A privilege and a reminder of the balancing act we all face.


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A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces

Why this book?

If we love high-functioning messes we may as well go straight to the top. I found a sense of real genius in these pages, also said by many to contain the best-written depiction of New Orleans and its cultures; you feel like a local by the end of it. Our host is the outrageous educated slob Ignatius J Reilly – hot-dog vendor, philosopher, and leader of insurrections – whose path from outrage to outrage is a comedic high-wire act of historic proportions. Only published a decade after the author’s suicide, an air of autobiography also adds poignance to this read. I came away feeling I’d been in a backstage of life, the one where tragedy and comedy share a couch.


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Against Nature (A Rebours)

By Joris Karl Huysmans, John Howard

Against Nature (A Rebours)

Why this book?

This is my recommended therapy against the expected and mundane, a complete inversion of values from late nineteenth-century France. Against Nature (from the French A Rebours) is a refreshingly plotless decadent novel about an aristocratic aesthete, Jean Des Esseintes, who, having grown disgusted with society, retreats into his house to contemplate higher things. These include a tortoise which he plates in gold and encrusts with jewels to highlight the colours on a Persian rug. This book made me want to give up wearing socks.


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Zeno's Conscience

By Italo Svevo, William Weaver

Zeno's Conscience

Why this book?

A doctor in early twentieth-century Trieste demands that an eccentric patient write his memoirs as a form of psychotherapy. These pages are those memoirs – the doctor calls them all lies – and form the fictional life story of one of my favourite misfits, the unreliable Zeno Cosini, with his horde of idiosyncrasies. Between proposing to three sisters within an hour and making a fortune on the stock market by mistake, he spends his time nurturing his hypochondria and trying to give up smoking, which means endlessly smoking ‘last cigarettes’. A seminal work of modernism, this is another novel with autobiographical ties to the author, and I left it torn between laughter and tears over just how complex, ironic and funny we humans can be.


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The Satyricon

By Petronius, P. G. Walsh

The Satyricon

Why this book?

This work is a game-changer for our perception of history, as well as being a riot to read. Assembled from discovered fragments, the work is a form of a satirical novel from late first-century Rome, narrated by a certain Encolpius in the house he shares with his handsome sixteen-year-old slave and boyfriend, Giton. What I love about this work is how modern it is: the language, the satire, the comedy, and decadence are relatable today, and are still outrageous and funny. This book blew away any disconnect I felt with ancient history, where all matters are reduced to serious narrative; it did it by sending a voluptuary’s voice direct from Nero’s Rome.


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