I’m tickled that the New York Times Book Review assessment of the five best novels of the last twenty-five years aligns so closely with my own preferences. Here’s the top five:
1. Beloved, Tony Morrison
2. Underworld, Don Delillo
3. Rabbit Angstrom, John Updike
4. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth
I am deeply ashamed that I’ve never read Beloved, and the Rabbit novels have been on my “to read” list for the last four years or so. The McCarthy and the Roth, though, are on spot. I know that Scott disagrees, but I think that American Pastoral is, by a fair distance, the strongest of Roth’s later work. I like Sabbath’s Theater (which, along with five other Roth books, is on the larger list) but I always felt that American Pastoral was a more complete and accessible work. Blood Meridian is obviously the best McCarthy (the Border Trilogy also makes the larger list). Underworld is interesting; I think that it’s probably better than Libra and White Noise, although with the latter this is purely a stylistic preference on my part. It’s certainly more ambitious than Libra, but I think that it could be reasonably argued that Underworld doesn’t come together quite as well, apart from the magnificent first fifty pages.
I’m not sure that it’s quite fair to include Confederacy of Dunces as a candidate; it was written well outside the twenty-five year window. Then again, so were three of the four Rabbit novels. There are only three works since 2000, including two of what I thought were fairly weak Roth efforts (Human Stain and especially Plot Against America), which suggests to me that distance and hindsight are important to a project like this. I imagine that a couple of hundred prominent writers and critics asked in 2015 would return a much different set of works from the first part of this decade.