The Five Greatest Novels Of The Jazz Age

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Quays - as I might have mentioned - is a novel of the Jazz Age. It's also a novel about books, and without the writers of the 1920s - without Dos Passos and Runyon, Scott Fitzgerald and Parker, Lardner and Lewis - it probably wouldn't exist. So here's a little list: the five best novels of the American 'twenties. And if any of you Bright Young Things fancy picking a fight in the comments section, I'll happily join the fray.

Damn, this was a great decade. Please back my book, and help me bring it back to life.


Manhattan Transfer, John Dos Passos

Dos Passos deserves to be talked about more than Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway. His first novel, Three Soldiers, was the quintessential young-man-home-from-the-war debut; his second, Manhattan Transfer (1925, the same year as Gatsby), carried him into the front rank of American novelists. Dos Passos fused the intense social realism that had dominated the previous two decades of urban American writing with a vigorous, colourful Modernism; in Manhattan Transfer, he looked at his city through the eyes of newsmen, office girls, waiters, boozers and bums, and raised it up on the page, skyscrapers, trashcans and all. For all the magnificence of his three-volume Modernist monument USA (1930-36), Manhattan Transfer remains Dos Passos’s masterpiece.                  


Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis

HL Mencken called him a booby; Sinclair Lewis called him Babbitt. George F. Babbitt, a real-estate agent in the Midwestern town of Zenith, is Lewis’s exemplar of the vacuous American middle class (Mencken’s booboisie) so despised by the satirists of the Jazz Age. Babbitt (1922) is a plotless portrait of a man lost to conformity and consumerism – but not quite beyond redemption. Lewis, unlike Mencken, was no cynic; he was an heir to the Progressive tradition in American letters that had also spawned the generation of investigative journalists derided by Theodore Roosevelt as ‘the men with the muckrakes’. There may be hope for George F. Babbitt. But Lewis lets us have a good laugh at him in the meantime.      


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos

The 1920s were a golden age for US comic writing, but not so much for the comic novel. Most of the Jazz Age’s funniest writers – Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber – restricted themselves to short stories, journalism or poetry. Thank god, then, for Anita Loos. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) is the story of Lorelei Lee, a joyous concoction of naivety and street-smarts, wit and avarice, bad spelling and diamond jewellery; it’s also a story of sexual politics and social mores (‘I do not mind a riskay story as long as it is really funny’). Without Lorelei, it’s unlikely that we’d have Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly (both characters, it’s worth noting, are now associated less with the writers who created them than with the actors – Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn – who immortalised them).          


Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett

Don’t let anyone tell you that The Maltese Falcon is Dashiell Hammett’s best book (and kick the shins of anyone who describes Raymond Chandler as the king of hardboiled detective fiction). Sam Spade, the ruthless gumshoe played by Bogart in John Huston’s film version of Falcon, certainly has his moments, but it’s the Op from the Continental Detective Agency (the original Man With No Name) who is Hammett’s greatest hero. In Red Harvest (1929), the Op is sent in to clean up the city of Personville – aka Poisonville. Overweight and phlegmatic, hardbitten and icepick-sharp, he plays high-stakes power games with a dangerous crew of corrupt cops, bootleggers, femmes fatale and gangsters; amid the murder and mayhem, though, the Op’s greatest fear is of losing his humanity – of going ‘blood simple’. Noir aficionados will notice that the Coen brothers took that wonderfully Hammettian phrase for the title of their first film.         


The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

I couldn’t leave Gatsby out, now could I? Even if you think that Daisy Buchanan is insufferable and Nick Carraway is a piece of wet lettuce, even if you think that any or all of the other four books in this list do a more effective job of shining light on the dark side of the American Dream, you can’t ignore The Great Gatsby (1925). Fitzgerald wrote like a dream about an evanescent high society. One of the remarkable things about Gatsby and the literature of the Jazz Age as a whole is the pervading sense of impending doom – the awareness of the champagne hangover to come, the bust after the boom, the price to be paid for the good times. It’s almost as if they knew.     


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