To these four novels I have assigned levels of hell, in descending order, for their depictions of life in various (English speaking) places during the last two centuries.
I serendipitously happened across Old School by Tobias Wolff in an English language book store in Stockholm. Now that I know him through this book I will be looking for his other works. One of his memoirs has been made into the movie “This Boy’s Life.”
Wolff’s Old School presents the hell of students in a boarding school with its hierarchies of economic class, social class and the natural hierarchies of ability and courage. Featured in this apparently autobiographical novel is the competition each year to be the student chosen to present his written work to a visiting and renowned writer, such as Robert Frost and Mary McCarthy. The one writer most mentioned and most important to the purpose of this novel is Ernest Hemingway. This should be enough to whet your reading appetite.
I found The Rise of Silas Lapham lying in a used book bin, in the late autumn of its life. I had never heard of the author, William Dean Howells, yet he was and is highly esteemed. Henry James, a contemporary, is quoted that he “squealed with pleasure over every word” of Howells’s.
In this book, there is the agony of the nouveau riche not fitting into the long-established society, despite their wealth buying them into the geography of the “old money” people. More, it is the pain of two young people who love each other not able to escape the boundaries that rigid social classes present, at least in 19th century Boston. The writing is impeccable, a view shared by others.
I read Hubert Selby Jr.‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn for the first time many decades ago. It electrified me, especially because I had then recently escaped back to California with my parents and sister from a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, of which this book vividly reminded me.
Last Exit presents a much lower level of hell. The book is in six parts, each presenting life as the author observed it in this slum. The language is as heard, not in standard English. It works, at least for me. The opening scene was vivid for me, bringing to mind my youthful experiences where the young men, still adolescent, hung around the street corner by the candy store (it was “the Greek’s” restaurant in the novel) spitting, cursing, crudely observing the passing scene, challenging each other, planning petty crimes to get beer and cigarette money. One might see it is the lowest level of hell on earth, but at least there were families, however dysfunctional.
In the lowest of the four levels of hell depicted by these books, the only “family” is one where outcasts and criminals adopt each other for their various purposes, but still retain a sense of humanity. The novels in the ‘Burke’ series of Andrew Vachss rivet me with their urban realism, based in the underbelly of a major U.S. city.
Mask Market isn’t the best of Andrew Vachss’s many novels, but I found it as impossible to put down as with the others. There is a set of continuing characters in of the “Burke” novels, all of which are well drawn and sympathetic, especially the main character, “Burke,” who has many working aliases. The focus of all these novels is the living hell of sexually and otherwise abused children. Burke is an enemy to such abusers and he will, with help from his outcast colleagues, do rough justice to them, or bring them to trusted local authorities. It feels good when he does.