The best Southern novels with prose good enough to make you forget the world’s on fire

The Books I Picked & Why

Suttree

By Cormac McCarthy

Suttree

Why this book?

Though my own work will never come close to equaling its wonder, this is the novel that taught me the most about the actual craft of writing. Before he redefined the western, Cormac McCarthy was a master of Southern Gothic storytelling, and Suttree was his crowning achievement. Perhaps only Blood Meridian does more in the McCarthy canon as far as elevated imagery, but Suttree accomplishes its beauty without the benefit of the sprawling southwestern landscape. Rather, McCarthy’s Knoxville becomes like Joyce’s Dublin, and he paints it in such vivid dereliction, there can be no mistaking Suttree is the novel by which all other southern works ought to compare themselves. Bonus points for somehow making watermelon fornication into a literary act.


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Provinces of Night

By William Gay

Provinces of Night

Why this book?

Gay was a McCarthy disciple and Provinces of Night is his greatest work. Though he often mimics McCarthy (and in my opinion came closer to McCarthy than anyone else), he finds a desperate, haunting voice that is all his own. Provinces of Night (the title taken from a line in McCarthy’s Child of God) does a remarkable job of storytelling with multiple characters leading the narrative. Bonus points for this quote: “Life blindsides you so hard you can taste the bright copper blood in your mouth then it beguiles you with a gift of profound and appalling beauty.”


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As I Lay Dying

By William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying

Why this book?

A classic, and perhaps too much so. Many scholars of Faulkner believe there are other, greater titles in his career that should stand as his seminal work. However, this is the first of his novels that I read, and so perhaps had the advantage when it came to leaving an impression. Again, the multi-faceted storytelling is most impressive, as are the not-so-subtle themes of death and religion. Bonus points for the shortest chapter in literary history: My mother is a fish.


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Look Homeward, Angel

By Thomas Wolfe

Look Homeward, Angel

Why this book?

Wolfe is, in my opinion, a writer’s writer. His passion for life and for the written word are evident in the way he seemingly attacks each page. Some have called his writing “exhausting,” and it may very well be—but no doubt because the writer himself was exhausted by the time he was finished. Look Homeward, Angel is one of the great American novels and its theme of growing up and coming of age and leaving home is as universal as it is timeless. Bonus points for the inspired paragraphs in which Wolfe depicts every smell Eugene Gant is exposed to from the time he is a toddler to the time he begins school. 


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Where All Light Tends to Go

By David Joy

Where All Light Tends to Go

Why this book?

I don’t read many current authors. It’s not their fault I’m a slow reader and have so many older novels to work through. But there are exceptions and David Joy is certainly one of those. I’d recommend starting at his beginning with Where All Light Tends to Go. His voice helped (and is still helping) usher in a new generation of southern authors. Joy, unlike the other authors on this list, tends to lean toward spare prose, which creates a bingeable quality to his work. Bonus points for a perfect ending. 


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