Success in its many guises is central to these novels—which are triumphs in themselves, says Tad Friend
1. Of Human Bondage
George H. Doran, 1915
A wrenching tale overdue for a revival. Philip Carey is a prickly, club-footed orphan whose youth in a rural vicarage is sustained by dreams of greatness—he’s a Dickens protagonist with no waiting benefactors. Philip studies in Heidelberg and learns that God is dead. He paints in Paris but learns he lacks talent (God is still dead). He trains as a doctor in London and falls for a waitress named Mildred, whose indifference exerts an uncanny hold on him; she ruins him emotionally and financially (God’s a goner, all right). Yet Mildred, too, engages our pity as she becomes a streetwalker and sinks to her doom; in Maugham’s hands her shabby cruelties become piercingly sad. Philip, stripped of his hope and even his home, surfaces at last as a doctor in prosaic Dorset, engaged to the motherly daughter of a lower-class friend. He is a success not as he’d imagined but as the first existential hero. Maugham writes: “Life was not so horrible if it was meaningless, and he faced it with a strange sense of power.”
2. What Makes Sammy Run?
By Budd Schulberg
Random House, 1941
Sammy Glick, the hustling newsboy who rises with alarming speed to run a Hollywood studio, became a byword for crassness, for insincerity and—often anti-Semitically—for the Jewish dominion at the studios. But in the hands of Budd Schulberg (whose father, B.P. Schulberg, had run Paramount Pictures when Budd was young), Sammy is also a repudiation of Horatio Alger’s plucky heroes and a corrective to Jay Gatsby; he demonstrates the brazen ambition it actually takes to achieve the American dream. The narrator, a former newspaper colleague of Sammy’s turned screenwriter who has watched his rise with appalled wonderment, asks him: “How does it feel? How does it feel to have everything?” Schulberg writes: “He began to smile. It became a smirk, a leer. ‘It makes me feel kinda . . .’ And then it came blurting out of nowhere—’patriotic.’ ”
3. Lucky Jim
By Kingsley Amis
The laugh-out-loudest of all novels. Jim Dixon is a lazy, boozy junior lecturer whose sole ambition is to save his post at a provincial British university. But he can’t resist sneak attacks on the neurotics and colossal bores who beset him. He’s a master of guerrilla tactics, from elaborate telephone impersonations to making faces—his “Edith Sitwell face,” or his “Chinese mandarin’s face”—when his nemeses aren’t looking. His achievement consists of remaining stubbornly against what everyone else is stupidly for. When at the end Jim improbably lands a wonderful job in London and secures Christine, the girl of his dreams, “he thought what a pity it was that all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing.” His celebratory plans are limited to drinking: “He would start with an octuple whiskey.”
4. Bang the Drum Slowly
By Mark Harris
Mark Harris wrote “Bang the Drum Slowly” in less than two months, but it’s a jewel—a brisk, poignant, vernacular account of the 1955 season of the fictional New York Mammoths baseball team, narrated by their star pitcher, the free-spirited southpaw Henry “Author” Wiggen. Author will lead the league in wins, but the limelight no longer motivates him because his dim, underachieving roommate and backup catcher, Bruce Pearson, is dying of Hodgkin’s disease. Harris is remarkably subtle in his treatment of how Author labors to stop his teammates from teasing Bruce without betraying his friend’s confidence about his illness. After the secret leaks, the chastened Mammoths turn their focus from winning to cheering up Bruce, without ever letting on that they know. When Bruce begins to shine, playing inspired baseball in his final days, Author explains: “He has more friends. He never had any before.”
5. True Grit
By Charles Portis
Simon & Schuster, 1968
“True Grit” calls to mind Cormac McCarthy’s sanguinary meditations on the border, but Charles Portis details the savagery of the 1870s frontier through an astonishing narrative voice: that of the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a flinty, skeptical, Bible-thumping scourge. Mattie hires a federal marshal and rides into the Oklahoma territory to find the coward who shot her father, and her outrage brings order to the wilderness—an order predicated on the deaths of half a dozen outlaws, some of them guilty of rather little. The book is dryly hilarious yet gradually mournful, for Mattie is recalling these events years later, as a well-to-do but cranky spinster. Her readers know how much she had to offer, but no suitor ever saw it. For Mattie—and, Portis suggests, for the country—once the West was won, the rest was afterglow.
Mr. Friend is the author of “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor,” just published in paperback.