The best non-Faulkner books from the American South

John Milliken Thompson Author Of The Reservoir: A Novel
By John Milliken Thompson

The Books I Picked & Why

All the King's Men

By Robert Penn Warren

Book cover of All the King's Men

Why this book?

It’s hard to think of a more penetrating look at early 20th-century American life than this 1946 masterpiece. The rise of a populist governor, based loosely on Huey P. Long, is charted with deadly accuracy and poetic beauty. Read this for profound insight into the workings of the human heart, the way history is conceived and told, and the moral dilemmas of family and community. I’ve read it twice and loved it both times.

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Look Homeward, Angel

By Thomas Wolfe

Book cover of Look Homeward, Angel

Why this book?

Another Southern cultural landmark, this North Carolina tour de force comes, like Faulkner, out of a tradition steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. Some people think you can appreciate this one only when you’re young. Not true. I read it for the second time in my 40s and got caught up again in the Gant family saga and those wonderful, rolling sentences, exploding like thunder all around.

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Lie Down in Darkness

By William Styron

Book cover of Lie Down in Darkness

Why this book?

I’ve read it twice, and I can only stand back in wonder at how a person could create such a magnificent work of art (his first novel) at age 26. For richness of character development, philosophical weight, and power of language, this is one for the ages. Though the subject matter is heavy, it’s not a difficult read. Yet there are passages where you’ll want to slow down and take in the music of the words.

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The Dog of the South

By Charles Portis

Book cover of The Dog of the South

Why this book?

Has to be one of the funniest novels ever written: a road-trip story with weird characters, small-time conmen, and twisting dialogue that could’ve been assembled by Beckett. It’s impossible to predict where the story’s heading. There’s nothing like it out there, and it’s as different from Portis’s brilliant True Grit as Mark Twain from Cormac McCarthy (both of whom Portis resembles), and probably his best.

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The Old Forest and Other Stories

By Peter Taylor

Book cover of The Old Forest and Other Stories

Why this book?

Taylor is one of the authors who made me want to be a writer. He’s a magician of the short story, compressing events and characters from the upper South into luminous stories that can seem more real than life. He wrote longhand in poetic lines, usually drafting about a hundred pages for every ten he kept. The result is a rich reduction of scenes that move us to laughter and tears. Taylor holds the mirror up to life, and you can’t help but be drawn in.

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