There are certain books only spoken about in hushed, sober tones, sometimes accompanied by a thousand-yard stare into the setting sun. These books are well-regarded — important, even — but also long, difficult, and some degree of torturous to get through. I call them the Behemoths, because a little hyperbole is in order for books comparable in volume to a Campo’s hoagie.
The Tunnel by William Gass is a Behemoth. War and Peace and Ulysses? Classic Behemoths. Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo are long enough to be in the conversation. Last year’s exquisite epic Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is a 21st-century candidate for Behemoth status. Time will tell.
David Foster Wallace’s 1996 masterwork Infinite Jest is either the ace or the mascot of the reinforced Behemoth bookshelf, depending on how indulgent you think it was. I lugged that cinder block around one summer, with one bookmark for the main text, and another holding my spot in its 100-something pages of footnotes. Worth it? I mean, yes. I deeply love Infinite Jest, but I cannot recommend it. I take my recommendations very seriously; I don’t need your headaches or your backaches on my conscience. And I certainly don’t want to have to defend it in conversation.
My Uncle Bob has emerged as a reading hero of mine in recent years, using the newfound freedom of retirement to take on several Behemoths. He spent three years working through Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, then moved on to 18th-century Chinese novel The Story of the Stone.
Right now he’s in the thick of it with Thomas Pynchon’s infamously impenetrable Gravity’s Rainbow: 760 pages, 400 named characters, no reasonable plot summary available. Uncle Bob does 10 pages a day, rain or shine. His advice? Don’t be a hero. Read the Sparknotes, watch related YouTube videos, look up old reviews and criticisms. Anything you need to make sense of what you’re reading, get the most enjoyment out of it, and slay the Behemoth.
And now, here are five extraordinary books of a more ordinary size.
Retail Gangster: The Insane, Real-Life Story of Crazy Eddie, Gary Weiss
East Coasters of a certain vintage have Crazy Eddie’s wacky commercials etched into their memories (“His prices are insane!”), and they especially will be enthralled by the dirty details dished out in investigative journalist Gary Weiss’ new book. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Brooklyn stereo salesman Eddie Antar built an electronics empire (with local outposts in Center City, the Northeast, and Cherry Hill) and secured a quirky place in pop culture. His secret? Aggressive marketing and clever bookkeeping. According to Retail Gangster, the charismatic and cunning Antar was ripping off everybody — insurers, investors, customers, friends, family — until it all came crashing down. In the end, will Eddie be remembered as a countercultural rapscallion or a lying, cheating scumbag? (Hachette, $29, out now)
If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery
There are plenty of signs Jonathan Escoffery’s debut is something special: the instantly endearing characters, the artful storytelling, the tightly spun sentences, the humor, the detail, the windows into places and situations hidden to most of us. But perhaps most impressive is the way these linked stories about a working-class Jamaican family living in Florida inspire a skillfully engineered emotional reaction. One left me floored, another broke my heart, and yet another made me gasp. (Ever been so broke you were willing to slap a stranger for cash? That story had me screaming “get out of there” at the page.) To be clear, If I Survive You has well-crafted moments of horror and suspense, but this is literary fiction at its most engaging, satisfying, and affecting. (MCD, $27, Sept. 6)
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Kate Beaton
In this hefty, sublime graphic novel/memoir, young Katie, just out of college, does what lots of people from rural, beautiful, stagnating Nova Scotia do — she heads west to Alberta, where the oil industry jobs are. The upside is she could have her student loans paid off in a couple years, but there are plenty of downsides: It’s cold, lonely and mostly bleak, the hours are long, and men outnumber women 50-1. As Katie endures all types of harassment and othering, she starts to contemplate the ways that the job is changing the men, the environment, and herself. Using muted colors and colorful dialogue, author/illustrator Kate Beaton invites readers into a lonely, alien world just outside our own. (Drawn & Quarterly, $39.95, Sept. 13)
Bliss Montage, Ling Ma
It’s only been four years, but it feels like a decade since Ling Ma made an entrance with her stylish plague drama/publishing biz satire Severance. Maybe there’s a glimpse of the future in the author’s new collection of swift, smart short stories. In “Los Angeles,” a woman lives in a mansion with a hundred ex-boyfriends and a husband who speaks only in dollar signs. In “G,” a popular drug turns you invisible. I’ll let you guess what “Yeti Lovemaking” is about. As always, Ling Ma’s big, weird ideas set the stage for keen emotional insights. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, Sept. 13)
Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World, Anthony Sattin
“Nomads have always been at least half the human story,” Anthony Sattin writes in the introduction to his thought-provoking new examination of mobile peoples and cultures. Of course, it’s often the other half — the ones who’ve planted roots, built monuments, kept records — that dominate the history books. Nonetheless, Sattin argues, those who lived more lightly and left fewer artifacts have made, and continue to make, crucial contributions to civilization, though their numbers are dwindling and their traditions often puts them at odds with the world of borders and walls. (W.W. Norton & Co., $28.95, Sept. 20)
Also out this month:
Carrie Soto Is Back, Taylor Jenkins Reid
An aging tennis great comes out of retirement to reclaim her title in this new novel by the author of Malibu Rising and Daisy Jones & The Six. Reid’s a champ when it comes to bold, cinematic dramas. (Ballantine, $28, out now)
What We Fed to the Manticore, Talia Lakshmi Kolluri
Each of the nine stories in this charming debut collection is told from the perspective of an animal (a vulture, a donkey, an injured pigeon). It’s more Watership Down than The Runaway Bunny. (Tin House, $16.95, Sept. 6)
The Birdcatcher, Gayl Jones
The once-reclusive author of Corregidora (1975) and Palmares (2021) continues her comeback with this story of a curious trio living in Ibiza: a writer, a sculptor who repeatedly tries to kill her husband, and the sculptor’s husband who sticks around. (Beacon Press, $24.95, Sept. 13)
From Saturday Night to Sunday Night: My Forty Years of Laughter, Tears, and Touchdowns in TV, Dick Ebersol
The veteran TV exec takes readers behind the scenes at SNL, the NFL, the Olympics, the late-night talk show wars, coverage of the O.J. Simpson car chase, and more. (Simon & Schuster, $28.99, Sept. 13)
The Furrows, Namwali Serpell
A young woman sees the face of her missing brother everywhere she goes in Serpell’s gorgeous new novel about grief, hope, and what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” (Hogarth, $27, Sept. 27)