Let the fireworks begin.
When talk turns to naming the Great American Novel — the upper-case designation is required by custom, if not by law — tempers tend to flare. Each time I approach the subject in a column, and display the shameless gall of actually suggesting a title or two, I am invariably besieged by an onslaught of contrary opinions, generally arriving under the salutation, "Dear Idiot."
The phrase Great American Novel is comfy and familiar, even if more so out of mockery than sincerity. If you're hunched over your laptop and a friend spots you and asks, "What're you up to, sport? The Great American Novel?" Chances are your pal is not seriously inquiring as to the nature of your endeavor.
No matter how much it is ridiculed, however, I love the idea of the Great American Novel. I love the notion that we are eternally searching for a book — one book, one book out of all the hundreds of thousands of books published since the country had its tumultuous birth — that will somehow encapsulate everything that we are and hope to be.
Impossible to find just one, you say? Well, maybe. But in the quest to do so, we end up discussing just what it is that makes the United States unique, and so marvelous, complex, mysterious and irreplaceable.
First, a ground rule: You're free to change your mind. In fact, you should change your mind. The Great American Novel isn't a fixed entity. Just as we elect a new president every four years, we should designate a new Great American Novel every few years as well. (Repeat terms are acceptable. "The Grapes of Wrath" is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Great American Novels.)
In years past, I've been — like Lewis and Clark — all over the map. I once named a contemporary novel, "American Psycho" (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis. But I've also gone with novels by Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis. F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" (1925) is a perennial contender, exploring as it does the corrosive effects of fabulous wealth — Gatsby's fortune, remember, has dark and sinister roots — as well as the history-haunted beauty of the wistful yearnings that mark us at our best. Americans are indeed "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
My finalists in 2011 are:
•"The Shadow Country" (2008) by Peter Matthiessen.
•"The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885) by William Dean Howells.
•"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" (1940) by Carson McCullers.
Matthiessen's book, a consolidation of three previously published novels, is an epic telling of the life of the legendary E.J. Watson. It is brutal, harrowing and luminous, and its view of America is tough but fair. In his introduction, Matthiessen almost sounds as if he's campaigning for the Great American Novel crown: "Though the book has no message, it might be argued that the metaphor of the Watson legend represents our tragic history of unbridled enterprise and racism and the ongoing erosion of our human habitat as these affect the lives of those living too close to the bone and way out on the edge, with no voice in the economic and environmental attrition that erode the foundation of their hopes and nothing with which to confront their own irrelevance but grit and rage."
The novel by Howells is not much read today, but ought to be; its portrait of a businessman's rise and fall is poignant and telling. And it includes one of my favorite descriptions of our national character. Lapham, Howells wrote, displayed "that American poetry of vivid purpose."
This year's prize, though, goes to "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter."
It has everything: a sensitive, idealistic young girl; a brilliant black man, embittered by racism; a labor organizer; a doomed love affair between two damaged men.
Here is our last look at Biff, the lonely man who runs the local diner in a small Southern town: "Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who — one word — love. His soul expanded."
Yours will, too, when you read this novel.