Tom Cox’s top 10 coming-of-age books

Tom Cox is a journalist and music critic. His first book, Nice Jumper, is a coming-of-age memoir about adolescent boys, golf and Nottingham.

1. Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth
Philip Roth can be soft and vivid as well as ranting and impenetrable, and here’s the proof: 97 pages that tell you everything you need to know about growing up and falling in love by a swimming pool in the late 50s. A novella you want to immobilise in time, like a perfect summer.

2. Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger
An obvious choice, I know, but still the blueprint for any literary exploration of the teen psyche. Which is spooky, really, since teenagers weren’t even supposed to have been invented in 1946. I’m writing a book about adolescents at the moment, but can’t hope I’ll learn as much about them from the experience as I have from reading this.

3. The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe
You have to worry about a book that takes its title from a lyric by 70s pub-rockers Hatfield And The North, but this is close to perfect. So many likeable characters, so much lovely (yet realistic) innocence, and an unfeigned portrait of the 70s which serves as a perfect antidote to all that cheap-rate, let’s-have-a-giggle-at-space-hoppers-out-the-sides-of-our-mouths nostalgia TV.

4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Not strictly a coming-of-age novel, in that its principle characters seem to have well-formed personalities from the start, but certainly a coming-of-age novel in the sense that after one out-of-control night, life will never be as balmy and irresponsible for any of them. Tartt is an effortless master of suspense who can remember what it was like to be a teenager, and, amidst the book’s thrilling, macabre set pieces, not only offer us a sense that the college years really are the best of our lives but tell us why too.

5. The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

Nobody writes about kids better than John Irving. I was torn between this and A Prayer For Owen Meany, but opted for The Hotel New Hampshire because the teens here seem more universal, even when they’re contemplating having sex with their siblings. Overflowing with life, and love for it.

6. The Blue Suit by Richard Rayner

Rayner was once a modern day Walter Mitty character, adrift in academic Cambridge with a fluctuating identity, a gargantuan collection of stolen literature, and a talent for credit card fraud. You can tell he learned a lot about himself – and his family – whilst writing this, which is a must-read for anyone a) interested in an outsider’s take on the highest of higher education or b) planning to confront personal demons via prose.

7. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The late Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers once said this was one of his favourite books, but what such an attention-seeking doom-monger would have seen in it isn’t as obvious as you might think. For all the death and bored self-loathing of the sisters in the book, I see it more as a book about the anonymous male narrators, and a perfect, virginal evocation of the way teenage boys put girls on a pedestal representing their collective hopes for the future.

8. Bad Haircut by Tom Perotta

This collection of stories about growing up in the American hinterland in the mid-70s has a similar narrative voice to that of The Virgin Suicides: because the narrator is nameless, he aims to speak for teenagers as a whole. It’s a deceptively difficult thing to pull off, but Perotta (who also wrote the brilliant Election) succeeds with a spare, Carver-with-a-heart style. Imagine a softer, literary version of the film Dazed And Confused – a teenage community on the brink of terrible, indelible knowledge about the universe beyond the new Aerosmith LP.

9. The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

Amis at his least pretentious and most honest – about who he is, about who young men are. The only thing in his pantheon to rival Kingsley’s Lucky Jim for heart or humour. After reading this, stained underpants can never quite be looked upon in the same way.

10. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Who’s really coming of age here? The novel’s narrator, creative(ly) (blocked) writing teacher Grady Tripp? Or his gifted, troubled student, James Leer? Chabon leaves us guessing right until the end in this lost weekend romp, not to mention highly refreshed by the limitless aptitude of middle-aged men for acting like spoilt teenagers.


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