The best novels that mix comedy and tragedy

Who am I?

I’m a gay Midwestern novelist who finds that literary fiction is often humorless, with a narrow emotional range that begins with ennui and ends in despair. If you're weary of trauma porn and want to read books with a broad emotional range, this list of recommendations is for you. My favorite writers ably mix laughter and tears, and are able to find the funny in just about anything life can throw at us. 


I wrote...

After Francesco

By Brian Malloy,

Book cover of After Francesco

What is my book about?

Kevin Doyle is a gay twenty-something AIDS “widower” trying and failing and trying again to get his life together in 1980s Alphabet City. Apple Books picked After Francesco as a best new book of the month, raving that “this heartfelt novel isn't just moving—it's healing. Although the tragedy and heartache that Kevin endures brought us to tears more than once, Malloy also conveys joy, humor, and a beautiful sense of gay culture and community. After Francesco is a gorgeous and cathartic read that will enrich the way you understand a painful moment in American history."

The books I picked & why

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The Heart's Invisible Furies

By John Boyne,

Book cover of The Heart's Invisible Furies

Why this book?

After a long fiction reading drought, I picked up this novel and could not put it down. There is so much depressing literary fiction saturating the market, that I had nearly given up on the genre until I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies. We follow Ireland’s evolution from a theocracy to the first nation to approve marriage equality via popular vote through the eyes of gay Dubliner Cyril Avery. Once I read this opening line, I was hooked: “Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”


Flannery O'Connor Collected Works

By Flannery O'Connor,

Book cover of Flannery O'Connor Collected Works

Why this book?

If you’re older, you probably read O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for one or more lit classes; if you’re younger, you may have never heard of her as she is now “problematic” according to the unfunny woke-on-steroids crowd. I love O’Connor because I love characters with moral failings, I love mordant humor, and I love the possibility that even the most irredeemable among us can experience moments of grace. The brief details in her stories do such heavy lifting in terms of irony, for example when a Wellesley undergrad hits Mrs. Turpin in the head with a copy of Human Development in the short story “Revelation.” The action itself – a privileged white college student from an elite school inflicting violence upon a rural white woman – also speaks to our ongoing culture wars. 


A Man Called Ove

By Fredrik Backman,

Book cover of A Man Called Ove

Why this book?

What I’ve noticed about curmudgeons is that they often cast a long shadow of despair that they can never quite ever seem to shake. Ove is a grumpy old man, and, over the course of his unsuccessful attempts to end his own life, we learn more about his past with a woman named Sonja. “Ove had never been asked how he lived before he met her. But if anyone had asked him, he would have answered that he didn’t.” Almost against his will, Ove emerges from his cocoon of grief and guilt to learn how to live again, in his own singular, peculiar, and heartwarming way.


Patty Jane's House of Curl

By Lorna Landvik,

Book cover of Patty Jane's House of Curl

Why this book?

Lorna Landvik’s experience as a stand-up comic shines through in her debut novel, a Minnesota tale about what happens when Patty Jane's husband leaves her, and how she and her sister, Harriett, reinvent themselves by opening a neighborhood beauty parlor – complete with live harp music and Norwegian baked goods. You don’t have to be from Minnesota to appreciate the regional humor, and the narrative voice sounds like an old friend who has shared your joys and heartbreaks over years of good times, bad times, and all those times in between.


Rubyfruit Jungle

By Rita Mae Brown,

Book cover of Rubyfruit Jungle

Why this book?

While the gay coming of age novel is now a genre unto itself, this 1973 novel about Molly Bolt’s journey from the impoverished south to the concrete jungle is most likely the book that started it all. Brown beautifully renders hysterical moments like Molly’s savage turn as the Virgin Mary in a children’s nativity play, to her involuntary institutionalization when it’s discovered she’s a lesbian. A funny, sad, and unforgettable story for anyone who has been labeled an “outsider.”


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in neighbourhoods, lesbian topics and characters, and 20th century?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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