The best novels about outsiders and misfits

Richard Zimler Author Of The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon
By Richard Zimler

The Books I Picked & Why

The Story of Harold

By Terry Andrews, Edward Gorey

Book cover of The Story of Harold

Why this book?

Are you prepared to read a novel that might challenge your perspective on sexual practices generally considered perverse and perilous? The narrator of this touching fictional autobiography is Terry Andrews, a compassionate, witty, and wildly promiscuous children’s book author and resident of pre-AIDS Greenwich Village. Unfortunately for him, he discovers that he is most drawn to what he cannot have – a family and kids. His attraction to down-and-out misfits and sadomasochism seems to rule that out until he falls in love with a married father of six. When that relationship comes undone, however, Terry slides into suicidal depression. Even so, his narration remains charged with magical exuberance and black humor. Is it a scandalous work? Definitely! Dangerous? Probably. Worth reading? You decide…  

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A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

Book cover of A Christmas Carol

Why this book?

The most memorable characters in novels are often evil and mean-spirited. That’s definitely the case in this troubling and moving work, in which a bitter miser named Ebenezer Scrooge adores mistreating everyone around him. His philosophy? Kindness and compassion undermine the economic workings of society and encourage the poor to be lazy. Does that sound familiar? It should, because it’s neo-liberal ideology in a nutshell! Scrooge is shunned by his employees and has no friends. One chilly night, three specters pay him a visit: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Will they terrify him into changing his ways? Dickens’ classic raises a psychologically astute question that I explore in my own book and several of my novels: can only the most terrible traumas truly change us?   

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Ken Kesey

Book cover of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Why this book?

Did you ever defy unfair rules imposed on you by a boss, teacher, or parent and have to pay dearly for your rebelliousness? If so, you’re sure to identify with the main character of Kesey’s first novel, petty criminal Randle McMurphy, who’s serving a prison term for assault. In order to win a transfer to a psychiatric hospital and receive more lenient treatment, he fakes insanity. Once there, however, his defiant antics, zest for life, and sexual allure put him in conflict with the puritanical head of his ward, Nurse Ratched, who comes to see him as a disruptive misfit and dangerous rival. McMurphy soon earns her fury by encouraging his fellow patients to live more freely and adventurously. Though readers know that he is unlikely to win this battle of wills with the cruel nurse, the length to which she goes to ensure victory still comes as a terrible shock. 

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Lazarillo de Tormes / The Guide Boy of Tormes

By Anonymous

Book cover of Lazarillo de Tormes / The Guide Boy of Tormes

Why this book?

Published way back in 1554, this revolutionary novel is irreverent, amusing, and gloriously critical of the hypocrisy of 16th century Spanish society and, by extension, our own times. The main character is a destitute scoundrel named Lazarillo who seeks to better his fortunes while in the service of a brutal priest and host of other unseemly characters. By creating an anti-hero who is a witty misfit and outcast, and by portraying Spanish society as morally bankrupt, the author earned the wrath of the Spanish monarchy – which banned the novel – and the Catholic Church, which placed it on its Index of forbidden literature. My novel is also on the Church’s list of forbidden books, so I feel a special kinship with the unnamed author of this groundbreaking work.    

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The Chrysalids

By John Wyndham

Book cover of The Chrysalids

Why this book?

I’m passionate about reading (and writing!) about people who are persecuted for their beliefs and individual qualities, so this novel fits my tastes perfectly. In it, survivors of a nuclear holocaust live in a rural community that enforces Old Testament rules and regulations, eliminating anyone with a physical defect or mutation. Their isolated territory is surrounded by the Fringes, a terrifying wasteland inhabited by radiation-transformed creatures. David, the young narrator, soon reveals a damning secret: he is in telepathic contact with other youngsters who share his special abilities. He has also detected the existence of adult mind-readers in distant New Zealand. When his secret is discovered, he and his friends are hunted down as dangerous anomalies. While fleeing for their lives to the Fringes, they call out telepathically for help. Will their rescuers arrive in time?     

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