10 Literary Masterpieces
Can anyone explain why this book never won any awards or even had a film adaptation, considering it’s the greatest work on the origins of the counterculture that gave birth to blues, jazz and rock’n’roll? The answer, of course, is that Mezzrow had the audacity to marry a black woman at a time when it was illegal in most states for whites and blacks to mix. Mezzrow goes into great detail on the use of sacramental substances for enhancing ceremonies (jam sessions), and concludes that marijuana is the best and safest. Mezz was one of the first three inductees into the High Times Counterculture Hall of Fame and his only child (Milton) attended the ceremony and accepted a Cup on his father’s behalf.
You may be familiar with the John Huston film of the same name (also scripted by Gardner), but the book is even more powerful. Set at the crossroads of harsh migrant labor versus even harsher boxing realities, this short, tightly-constructed novel is impossible to put down once started. It also takes the reader on a voyage to some of the deeper parts of the human soul. Born in Stockton, CA, (where the book is set) Gardner now lives in Marin and has become something of a recluse. In my opinion, his masterpiece is a far more mature artistic statement than say, the more popular The Catcher in the Rye.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The book that kick-started the hippie movement, a deeply spiritual prose-poem that took the improvisational energy of jazz and transformed it into literature. No one understood the importance of untampered improvisational energy better than Jack and this book also introduced the concept of marijuana as a spiritual tool that could lead one towards enlightenment. A generation hit the road, many traveling to Mexico to find marijuana, after reading this masterpiece, which was actually inspired by a long letter from Neal Cassady.
It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina
Farina and Bob Dylan were two titans of the early folk scene. They collaborated at first and eventually battled it out for supremacy at one point. But Farina certainly took the crown on fiction. After On the Road, this was probably the most influential book for intelligent teens in the sixties and it really opened some major doors revealing secrets, including the hidden hand of intelligence agents in the worlds of drugs and revolutions, and the dark side of unrestricted behaviors.
Angels by Denis Johnson
It’s ok this was written under the influence of Fat City (I know because Denis told me) because everybody has to be influenced by somebody and you might as well pick the best. This amazing novel, however, goes to even darker dimensions than Gardner’s masterpiece and is truly a walk on the wild side of life where morality becomes distorted almost beyond recognition. Just writing this book may have helped Denis get off junk forever and should serve as a warning to anyone wanting to travel down that road. And yes, I have a signed original edition.
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
And speaking of traveling down that junky road, no one ever put more people on that path than Burroughs, who remains, after all, “The Man,” as Hunter S. Thompson always referred to him. Burroughs was simply the greatest literary stylist and most original thinker of all counterculture literary icons. You probably need to read this book several times during the course of a lifetime just to fully absorb the contents.
Journey to the End of the Night by Celine
In a way, this book got it all started in the first place. Written in 1932, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Bardamu was the original counterculture hero, dripping with cynicism and black humor. Naturally, it took years for anyone to recognize the genius of this book, and Celine never achieved anything close to the respect he deserved, mostly because of his unfortunate support for the Nazis. Politics, however, were really never an important issue in his work, since he viewed the world as a corrupt place run by idiots.
Amis is more establishment than counterculture at this point, but I clearly remember my reaction to this book when it came out in 1974. Up until then, my chief ambition was to become the first great novelist of the rock’n’roll generation. What a crash I had after discovering this book. Amis beat me to the punch. The shag haircut on the back cover said it all. At a very young age, Amis established himself as one of the greats of his generation. It’s really a simple love story and doesn’t plummet the emotional depths of some of these other books here, but it remains a comic masterpiece nevertheless.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven
Is there a more mysterious figure in the history of counterculture literature than B. Traven, whose history and background have long been in dispute? Most of Traven’s books are set in Mexico and involve the conflicts between the Native population and the Spanish invaders who took over their lands. This book exposes the darkness of human greed better than any book in history. The film was great, but the book is even better.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
I promised to keep this list to ten, so I have to sign off on this one, even though there are lots of little-known masterpieces left to discuss. This book revealed many secrets from the intelligence community regarding brainwashing, only instead of ascribing the nasty business to our own CIA’s MK/ULTRA program, it placed all the blame on the North Koreans, Chinese and Russians. The world will never be the same after you read this book and you’ll suddenly know why F. Scott Fitzgerald said the rich were nothing like the rest of us.
Special shout-outs to: The Ginger Man by J.P. Dunleavy, The Risk of Being Ridiculous by Guy Maynard, and Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone; and, of course, 1966 by Steven Hager (that’s me!)