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Off the Shelf: Colson Whitehead

The author of The Intuitionist and the forthcoming Apex Hides the Hurt tells the story behind five books plucked at random from his collection.

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Critics use up a lot of ink ferreting out their favorite writers’ sources, but what if you could go through an author’s bookshelves, pick a few volumes, and ask for yourself? That’s what we’ve decided to do, starting with Colson Whitehead.

The Ecstatic
by Victor Lavalle
I got this from his editor, Chris Jackson, who wanted me to write a blurb for it, which I did. I met Victor when his first book, Slapboxing With Jesus, came out, and we did an awkward reading together in Hoboken at Maxwell’s. I think we were reading to six people—and one of them was this book collector who comes in with stacks of ten, gets them signed, and sells them on eBay. Victor’s a nice guy. He’s my age, grew up in the city, and his protagonist is obsessed with horror movies. So I knew Victor used to read Fangoria, like I did. There’s that connection, which I also feel with people like Jonathan Lethem. The way he described the New York of the late seventies and early eighties in The Fortress of Solitude was really exciting. I’m still trying to figure out how to write about stuff that’s more directly from my experience. And people like Victor and Lethem give me ideas about how to do that.

The Big Nowhere
by James Ellroy
This was really useful for me when I was starting The Intuitionist. I had written a sort of pop-culture satire that wasn’t published—no one particularly liked it—and I thought I should try something more linear. And so I read James Ellroy and Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard. When I hit upon this idea of making a jokey detective novel about elevator inspectors, I was really drawing from this neo-noir tradition. They’re very contemporary, set in the fifties, but they addressed the Red Scare. They addressed racial tension in Los Angeles. Well, that’s Mosley. Most of the black people in Ellroy are, We beat up some spook and got some information on him. With Ellroy, I stopped with American Tabloid, where it seemed like he had stripped down his writing so much that every sentence was three words long. The door opened. He got out. The red car stopped. There’s a certain amount of meat that is not in L.A. Confidential and The Big Nowhere.

Old Yeller
by Fred Gipson, 1964 edition
I have no recollection of Old Yeller. I’m pretty good at purging books every year or two when we move, but for some reason, this box from childhood seemed pretty holy. I loved Star Wars, I loved Videodrome, I loved horror movies, and if you bought the novelization, they have chapters that weren’t in the movie. I have no desire to read them now, but I can’t throw them out. I read a lot as a kid. Since I was a good student, if I said I was sick and obviously wasn’t really sick, I was allowed a day off every once in a while. Those days I would just sit at home and read my sisters’ Judy Blume or strange tales of young children, like Old Yeller. I’m not sure if Old Yeller will stand the test of time for my daughter, Maddie. I do want to make her read The Phantom Tollbooth, though.

The Amazing Spider-Man
by Stan Lee
I’m definitely a Marvel guy. This collects the first six issues of Spider-Man. When I was a kid, I wanted to write Spider-Man and the X-Men. Later on, when I was a freelancer, I related to Peter Parker’s struggling to pay the rent or avoid his landlady. A few months before Maddie was born, I had this impulse to go back to my old comic books and also to listen to early eighties music, like Echo and the Bunnymen. I think I was having some sort of crisis about becoming a father. One of the things I did was buy new Spider-Man comics, to see what happened to Peter Parker. I think they’ve gone astray with his character. He’s only aged like five years, but he’s married and had a kid, although the baby was killed. It seems a lot more heavy. Like everything, the comics industry has had to play catch-up with the real world, and things aren’t as rosy as they were twenty years ago.

Herzog
by Saul Bellow
I read it in college for a class on post–World War II American literature. Back then at Harvard, the English department definitely focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. So that’s the only class where I read The Crying of Lot 49, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Herzog. The professor said, “I actually don’t like Pynchon, but I have to read it because it’s important.” Herzog, I enjoyed it. I remember being outraged by the jive-talking black characters in the courthouse sections, but I think if I read it now, I wouldn’t be feeling that knee-jerk outrage. I tried to read Augie March this summer, and though I could see where people like Martin Amis get a certain kind of jazzy sentence, I couldn’t get through it. But in that far-off time when I get to reread books, Herzog is in the mix.


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