Greatest Novels of the 20th Century – Author, James Campion lists the books that changed generations.


The Great Gatsby
Slaughterhouse Five
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
On The Road
Brave New World
One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest
Catcher In The Rye
The Shining
Tropic Of Cancer
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
In the fall of 1996 the national men’s magazine, Genesis commissioned jc to put together a list and short reviews of some of the 20th century’s most groundbreaking American novels. Although many of the titles were chosen in a group effort between the editors of Genesis and jc, the author made it clear that mere sales nor critical acclaim would dictate the prerequisites for the list, which he readily admits is one not only close to his heart, but inspiration as well. For the first time they appear all together for your perusing and debating pleasure.

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby“But I didn’t call him, for he gave the sudden intimation that he was content to be alone–he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward–and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and faraway, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.”

The Great Gatsby is with little argument the “Great American Novel.” At just under 56,000 words, it defies the logic and boundaries of mere mortal literature. The development of characters, the glaring metaphors and the intimate range of its purpose tip the scales of perfection. The work is a lesson in prose and tension, a creation of romanticism and commentary bridging two centuries of American life, dreams and fears. In a letter to a friend in 1923, Fitzgerald bemoaned the construct of the novel and how he longed to create something beyond it, something of great worth. Two years later, he did just that.

The finest examples of Fitzgerald’s fulfilled prophecy is his choice of chapter breaks, how they demand notice, bridge curiosity and meld a delicate balance between good and evil, and how money, lust, ego, and circumstance blur their lines. It is at once a story of America, God (or the absence of one), a tale of integrity in an atmosphere of deceit, and a study of love where such a concept is impossible.

The Great Gatsby is the blueprint for all great fiction because by its very existence it challenges the genre. Anyone who has merely read a comic strip should say they have enjoyed it.

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Slaughter House-Five“So it goes.”

If Slaughterhouse Five is not Vonnegut’s finest work, it’s certainly his legacy. After this, his sixth book, postwar America would know him as a major voice of the late 20th century novel. While boasting a penchant for satire and the most blatant antiwar sentiment put to paper, it may best be remembered for its full-blown romp into science fiction and dark comedy. Slaughterhouse Five is the purest form of art for it achieves the best compliment one can bestow on the artist–it was far ahead of its time.

Moving in its subtlety, it is the semi-autobiographical tale of one man’s jump through time and space while facing the remnants of wartime horror. Having been a survivor of America’s bombing of the German city, Dresden, toward the end of the Second World War, Vonnegut uses his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim to roam the conscience of his own memory. But it is the discovery of Pilgrim’s own tragic life that is spent at the mercy of fickle destiny which makes Slaughterhouse Five a timeless classic.

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FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by Hunter S. Thompson

Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas“Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset up ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind. Ah, yes. This is what it’s all about. Total control now. Tooling the main drag on a Saturday night in Las Vegas, two good old boys in a fireapple-red convertible . . . stoned, ripped, twisted . . . Good People.”

Although infamous for its painfully descriptive and cartoonishly drugged-out scenes laced with a seemingly senseless abuse of societal boundaries, overt violence and maniacal behavior, Thompson’s hit-and-run search for the “American Dream” in the city of sin is so much more. Set in the backdrop of 1960s’ fumes and awash in the author’s unique brand of Gonzo Journalism, where the writer becomes part of the landscape he is covering, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas is a clinic in language and brevity. No scene is wasted, no dialogue superfluous.

Written as a series of articles for the pop-culture magazine, Rolling Stone, it is a fictitious haze that attacks, probes and holds to the mirror the humor of its futile characters bounding their way from one paranoid scenario to the next with little care for the consequences. Yet, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas stands alone in the pantheon of literary gold because it is completely and utterly original. It is the perfect voice for a rock-n’-roll generation, for it simply boogies like one of its most recognizable songs.

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ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac

On The Road“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”

It is arguably the most influential novel of the 20th century. For Jack Kerouac–the celebrated, if not reluctant point man for the underground Beat Movement of the late 1950s’–it was a signature work. A slice of Americana for 40 years, On the Road launched a Baby Boomer fallout and countless writing careers. Many argue that the moment it hit the shelves on September 5, 1957 the cultural revolution of the 1960s’ sex, drugs and penniless freedom began.

However, Kerouac’s rambling ode to a life with vague boundaries still breathes today with a speed and passion unique to its “spontaneous prose.” It is the first of many autobiographical odes penned by many of his contemporaries, most of whom used the medium of fiction to lay out a manifesto of underground delights rarely seen in the bland light of a growing middle class America. Several generations have found it a valuable source of inspiration and rebellion. Perhaps the hordes of Generation X can escape the Internet for a fresh encounter.

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BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World“ Feel how the Greater Being comes! Rejoice and, in rejoicing die! Melt in the music of the drums! For I am you and you are I – The Third Solidarity Hymn

It is religion and science, fascism and communism, reality and fantasy, future and past. It is the strangest collection of thought and theme to be put into a novel without even a hint of pedantry. First published in 1932, only a few years before the world was faced with the type of horrors depicted in it, Brave New World presents the potential for humanity to cleanse itself with the death of freedom.

Unlike the boorish political rhetoric of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley fears for the human spirit; doused in black humor and a warp of science madness, making it almost certain that it will be well over a millennium of failure before the final solution is to come. Although sometimes mired in an intellect that betrays its playfulness, Brave New World is the author’s most accessible work.

Before he would be done with the novel form, Huxley would dabble in a sequel and challenge most of the assertions found in this fascinating study of society’s trail.

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest“Whatever it was went haywire in the mechanism, they’ve just about got it fixed again. The clean, calculated arcade movement is coming back: sixty-thirty out of bed, seven into the mess hall, eight the puzzles come out for the Chronics and the cards for the Acutes . . . in the Nurse’s Station I can see the white hands of the Big Nurse float over the controls.”

On the surface, Kesey’s first, and most successful novel is a wonderful study of human fragility in the American Century’s increasingly cold and impersonal world. Beneath a fascinating character study, it scorches societal landscapes while stretching the art of imagination into ghoulish paranoid nightmares. It’s central figure, Randle Patrick McMurphy, simultaneously stands as both a leveled host into a psychotic world where machine and medicine belies madness, and that world’s most damaged psyche.

It is Kesey’s depiction of McMurphy’s vacillating dementia that lifts One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to more rarefied literary air. He stands aloof from the clan of crazies he at once hopes to infiltrate and then illuminate. The roots of the author’s later celebrity in the acid-frenzy culture of the late-sixties is evident in the expertly depicted dream-sequences, but where the novel takes shape is in its overt metaphor for a burgeoning cultural movement cracking under the weight of creeping fear.

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The Catcher In The RyeIt was lousy in the park. It wasn’t too cold, but the sun was still out, and there didn’t look like there was anything in the park except dog crap and globs of spit and cigar butts from old men, and the benches all looked like they’d be wet if you sat down on them. It made you depressed, and every once in a while, for no reason, you got goose flesh while you walked. It did’t seem like Christmas was coming soon. It didn’t seem like anything was coming.”

Once the Baby Boomer Bible, with its dose of alienation and swipe at the stagnation and apparent insanity of the establishment, Catcher In The Rye has since been transformed from harbinger to prophecy. Its raw, blatant direction may be far more potent in today’s world of lost innocence and hope than it was for a postwar generation high on excess and dreams.

Seemingly ripped from this present-day, sound-bite society obsessed with the grotesque personality as a defining portrait of itself, Salinger’s only real novel has become standard fodder for the depraved and maniacal.

First published in 1951, it raised questions on the stark reality of its content–from slang to sexuality. Beyond Catcher In The Rye’s social significance, there is the brilliantly confused innocence of its main character and narrator, Holden Caufield. It’s his desperation to be understood and gain a measure of self-respect in circumstances glaringly beyond his control that make him the everyman the way Steinbeck’s Tom Joad had been at the turn of the century.

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THE SHINING by Stephen King

The Shining“Force, presence, shape, they were all only words and none of them mattered. It wore many masks, but it was all one. Now, somewhere, it was all coming for him. It was hiding behind Daddy’s face, it was imitating Daddy’s voice, it was wearing Daddy’s clothes. But it was not his Daddy.”

The most frightening element of unparalleled horror-scribe, Stephen King’s ode to the haunted house lies not in its fantasy, but its chilling reality. Not unlike most of his work, the author uses the inner demons of society and their effects on its unsuspecting victims to weave morality tales of terror. But where The Shining stands above the rest, and therefore becomes a legitimate classic, is in its subtle transformation of the the fragile human condition to a stammering monstrosity.

A sensitive story of lonely childhood fantasies, psychic phenomenon and the gory specter of alcohol nightmares, it has spawned two movie adaptations that have yet to capture the eerie remnants of King’s unforgettable looming Overlook Hotel and its mysterious Room 217. As madness and evil possession gives way to hallucinations for King’s sympathetic protagonist turned antagonist, Jack Torrance, The Shining paints indelible images of our own dark side lying dormant in places not easily hidden. But most of all, it is a damn scary yarn told by a master.

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TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller

Tropic Of CancerI have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I though that I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am. Everything that was literature has fallen to me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.”

Sixty-six years after it was first published and subsequently banned in all English-speaking countries, Tropic Of Cancer remains a vital piece of American literary history–a work to which all young writers must go for a fresh and poignant slant on the definition of modern prose. With a vulgar honesty and riveting characters leaping from the page in a stream of consciousness reserved for the manic and ribald, it simply blurs the line between genius and pap.

Long before the Beat Generation and Gonzo Journalism, there was Henry Miller, the “ugly American”, stuck in Paris– a mere six years before it would ravaged by war–wandering the city of lights with no money or prospects. There, he wrote his first book amid the inspiring bohemian landscape, exploding with sexual indulgence and crude revelry.

Shocking for 1934, it is still the most unique work of its kind, and helped set the blueprint for the rest of the century’s literary meanderings along the road less traveled.

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JAWS by Peter Benchley

JawsThe fish, with the woman’s body in its mouth, smashed down on the water with a thunderous splash, spewing foam and blood and phosphorescence in a gaudy shower.”

One of the most popular novels of the 1970s, Jaws paralyzed the American public with such fear that many oceanfront resorts were forced to add shark experts to their payrolls and contractually guarantee the safety of potential swimmers. A few years later the wildly successful Steven Spielberg film drove the hysteria to even more astounding heights. Peter Benchley, unwittingly by his own admission, had started a panic phenomenon that is not likely to be equaled by another novel.

Benchley’s fascination with sharks, most notably the Great White, from which he created a modern Moby Dick, undulates throughout each page. The destructive force of the creature looms over the characters even when it is merely a shadow; controlling their emotions and driving them deeper into its world.

Unlike the movie’s lighter adventure tale, Benchley’s Jaws never promises salvation for humankind beyond its mere survival in the wake of a being that has ruled the seas for millions of years. It is nature that is Benchley’s tragic hero in this vastly underrated masterpiece of primal fear.

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Charlie And The Chocolate Factory“He seemed to love the sensation of whizzing through a white tunnel in a pink boat on a chocolate river, and he clapped his hands and laughed and kept glancing at his passengers to see if they were enjoying it as much as he.”

Roald Dahl’s engaging tale of morality and maturation in a 20th century vacuum of poverty and excess reads like a strange morphing of Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens cranked on pure sugar.

Disguised as a children’s book with surreal illustrations by Joseph Schindelman, it moves with a sophisticated wit. Although an inspiration for the cult film, Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, the original work bares only a resemblance in story and characters, while delving deeper into the dysfunction of a humanity smoldering at its core.

Dahl reminds us before the text begins, much like Dickens demands the reader to accept that Jacob Marley is quite dead before he unfolds his 19th century classic, A Christmas Carol, there are five children in this book. Four represent certain undesirable traits: greed, selfishness, sloth, and bad manners, while the fifth, Charlie Bucket–an Oliver Twist meets Alice in Wonderland–is simply billed as the hero. His adventure in self-discovery, riding the coat tales of one of modern literature’s most memorable White Rabbits, the Mysterious Wonka, is a time-honored romp through delightful fantasy.

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JUNKY by William S. Burroughs

Junky“The hipster bebop junkies never showed at 103rd Street. The 103rd boys were all old-timers — thin, sallow faces; bitter twisted mouths; still-fingered, stylized gestures. They were of various nationalities and physical types, but they all looked alike somehow. They all looked like junk.”

Bathed in the eerie light of alienation and surrealism, the characters in William S. Burroughs’ true-life tale of drug addiction in underground post World War II New York appear almost sympathetic through the eyes of one of their own. Along with overt physical oddities and idiosyncratic quirks, Burroughs’ junkies wear the warm sadness of their self-inflicted desperation, which becomes almost normal in the jungle of city existence. But it’s the slang of the addicts and the atmosphere they create that makes Junky a unique expose on the damage wrought by a burgeoning drug culture.

Unlike his most famous book, Naked Lunch, Junky eschews the bizarre angles for a more straightforward account of a person whose only routine and purpose is to procure, distribute and consume hard drugs. First published in 1953–long before the pop romanticism of the 1960’s–Junky proved a wailing siren to society’s ills and its wounded fringe. Today, its disturbing tribal echo still reverberates.

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