John Jeremiah Sullivan suggests American Purgatorio by John Haskell (2005)Read about the other entries from the list.
I’m surprising myself by naming something so recent. I keep trying to kick it off the top of the list and replace it with something older, weirder, and longer out of print, but it sits there. A novel that meets the problem of the inherent gimmickiness of fiction by diving into the gimmick so deep it emerges out the other side, like the best noir, but not noir, something closer to spiritualism. I remember finishing it and just feeling shattered. Best not to know anything about it plotwise, just to start reading it. Is it an unsung masterpiece? I haven’t lived in New York since 2004, the year before the book was published. People may be arguing about it in coffee shops. But I don’t hear it mentioned, and it is in some ways a small, quiet, modest book, and I am sure that it is a modern classic. I met Haskell once maybe ten years ago at a patio/bar area. I asked him if he had intended his narrator’s passing through Central Kentucky (which the person does at one point) as an homage to Thomas Merton, who lived in a monastery there and wrote the other great American riff on Dante, The Seven Storey Mountain. Haskell said no, coincidence, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter. The real writers are not in control of the connections they’re making.
The Page 69 Test: American Purgatorio.