PHILIP ROTH, ZUCKERMAN UNBOUND, 1981
In 1969, Roth was driven out of New York, and into mountain hermitism, by the wild success of Portnoy’s Complaint. Zuckerman Unbound is the fictionalization of his famous fame crisis—and therefore the origin myth of our city’s inexplicable Rothlessness.
D. KEITH MANO, TAKE FIVE, 1982
This experimental comic novel—it’s paginated backward, and its hero loses his senses one by one—was a critical darling but a popular flop. It tells the story of Simon Lynxx, an omniracist film director desperate for money to produce his masterpiece, Jesus 2001 (the three wise men ride the D train).
MARK HELPRIN, WINTER’S TALE, 1983
Helprin’s deeply addictive, persistently eccentric epic whopper—the hero lives in the ceiling of Grand Central station and rides a magical white horse—imagines New York as we all did when we first got here: a heroic dreamscape in which justice (personal, social, metaphysical) is always possible.
MARTIN AMIS, MONEY, 1984
In describing the lecherous wanderings of his obese alcoholic anti-hero John Self, the Londoner Amis gets New York exactly right, from the “meat-eating genies of subway breath” to the way Broadway—“the only curve in this world of grids”—“always contrives to be just that little bit shittier than the zones through which it bends.”
THE ARGUMENT STARTER
JAY MCINERNEY, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, 1984
Does the Brat Pack—the notorious pop-lit clique that spent 1986 snorting Champagne off each other’s pastel Ray-Bans at Club Blahrbety Blahrbety Blahr—really merit a place in our canon? And if so, which Brat? Bret Easton Ellis (the violent one), Tama Janowitz (the giant-haired one), or Jay McInerney (the one who got played by Michael J. Fox)? Our heated internal poll eventually broke toward Bright Lights, which has aged surprisingly well: It’s not so much a flip period piece about coked-out club kids as a surprisingly old-fashioned—and legitimately well-written—morality tale of an earnest goody-two-shoes literary striver. As a bonus, it contains the single most eighties dialogue exchange ever recorded: “You’ve got some blow?” asks a female partygoer. “Is Stevie Wonder blind?” says the narrator. Hella!
TOM WOLFE, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, 1987
Another roiling snake pit of controversy: Novel or journalism? Reality or cartoon? And is a white guy who dresses entirely in white allowed to get away with this much racial ventriloquism? Bonfire is, to my mind, nowhere near Wolfe’s best book—but while his other work tends to wander the country, this one feasts, with a hunger few books have ever shown, exclusively on New York.
MARY GAITSKILL, BAD BEHAVIOR, 1988
It’s not exactly a classic recipe for comedy: Prostitutes and Dexedrine addicts delude themselves into abusive relationships with people even worse off than them. And yet Gaitskill’s miserably precise story collection was the only book on this list (other than Woody’s) that made me laugh out loud.
LUC SANTE, LOW LIFE: LURES AND SNARES OF OLD NEW YORK, 1991
Low Life neatly embodies the logical contortions intelligent people are driven to by the city’s endless cycles of squalor and gentrification. Disturbed by the beautification of the Lower East Side, Sante rummaged through history books for the neighborhood’s grubby old soul circa 1840 to 1919. In other words, he fled the horrors of hipsters and boutiques for the comforts of offal, opium, gangs, and murder.
TONI MORRISON, JAZZ, 1992
Morrison’s story of a murderous affair in twenties Harlem might contain, pound for pound, the best descriptions of the city on this list: its sky, its streetscape, and even objects on the bottom of its rivers (planes, money, children).
ANATOLE BROYARD, KAFKA WAS THE RAGE: A GREENWICH VILLAGE MEMOIR, 1993
Broyard’s memoir preserves the Platonic ideal of Greenwich Village: a cultural hub in which bohemians slept with abstract painters, bumped into W. H. Auden at the corner store, visited Anaïs Nin’s apartment, studied Picasso at the New School, had drinks with Delmore Schwartz, and got psychoanalyzed by the expatriate cream of intellectual Europe.
MICHAEL CHABON, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, 2000
WWII-era New York as a magic box bursting with genre-dorkiness—comic books, sorcery, hair-raising escapes, and Chabon’s signature abracadabra prose (the East River is a “flatulent poison-green ribbon”).
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC, RANDOM FAMILY, 2003
LeBlanc immersed herself for a decade in one of the Bronx’s poorest neighborhoods; it turns out life there is less like Boyz N the Hood than like a nightmarishly exaggerated Jane Austen novel: tangled domestic plots (yearning, affairs, disputed parentage) infinitely folded over on themselves.
ANNE WINTERS, THE DISPLACED OF CAPITAL, 2004
These poems (including “A Sonnet Map of Manhattan”) document the human cost of New York’s position as the world capital of capitalism: “our fabled ‘texture’ of foreign / and native poverties.”
RICHARD PRICE, LUSH LIFE, 2008
For years, NYPD bureaucracy denied research-addicted novelist Richard Price access to the city’s cops, forcing him to write about his hometown’s problems (crack, projects) via the fictional Dempsy, New Jersey. A few years ago, he finally got access; the result is a densely reported police procedural and a diagnostic X-ray of every stratum of the modern Lower East Side.