The best non-Faulkner books from the American South

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

Who am I?

I grew up in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., and have since lived in Arkansas and Virginia. My two novels are historical, set in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Virginia and North Carolina, and are heavily influenced by the great Southern writers. My books feature family dramas, how the land interacts with characters, questions of fate and personal action, and the decisions that change people’s lives. I love Faulkner, but you’ll find him on every list. He influenced every writer who came later, but there are plenty of other heavy hitters to choose from. Here are a few favorites.


I wrote...

The Reservoir: A Novel

By John Milliken Thompson,

Book cover of The Reservoir: A Novel

What is my book about?

In 1885 in Richmond, Virginia a young pregnant woman is found floating in the city reservoir. It appears she has committed suicide, but there are curious clues at the scene that suggest foul play. The case attracts local attention, and an eccentric group of men collaborate to solve the crime. As the identity of the girl, Lillie, is revealed, her dark family history comes to light, and the investigation focuses on her tumultuous affair with Tommie Cluverius.

Tommie, an ambitious young lawyer, is the pride and joy of his family and the polar opposite of his brother Willie, a quiet, humble farmer. Though both men loved Lillie, it’s Tommie’s reckless affair that thrusts his family into the spotlight. Told through accumulating revelations, Tommie’s story finally ends in a riveting courtroom climax.

The books I picked & why

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the South, Virginia, and North Carolina?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the South, Virginia, and North Carolina.

The South Explore 85 books about the South
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