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50 STATES, 50 NOVELS: A

LITERARY TOUR OF THE UNITED


STATES
VIDEO JULY 24, 2013 QWIKLIT 37 COMMENTS

It is impossible to contain all of the United States of America in one novel.


From Alabama to Wyoming, there is little to connect every work here except
for the fact that they are, well, American. But if youre currently sitting on
your front porch, looking for an escape to anywhere in America, be it the
Everglades of Florida, the beaches of Southern California, or even the cold,
merciless terrain of Alaska then worry not: we have found some of the
finest works of contemporary literature this country has to offer, and placed
them all on one comprehensive list. Enjoy!

Alabama John Green Looking for Alaska (2005)

Dont let the title fool you; John Green places his main character, the
biography-obsessed prep-school student called Miles, in the middle of a love
triangle centered around an Alabamian prep school. Green has a knack for
channeling the coming-of-age to readers both young and old, and the
idealism of youth is wrung to its bitter end as Miles must eventually
confront tragedy head on.
Alaska Michael Chabon The Yiddish Policemans Union (2007)

Michael Chabon has continually produced novels with their own living,
breathing ecosystem. In this alternative history, the Jews are sent to Alaska
during World War II, greatly diminishing the death toll and allowing them to
build a metropolis in relative peace. The novel is a murder mystery that
combines the harsh Alaska weather with Jewish folklore, but half the fun is
actually discovering this world that can only exist in fiction.

Arizona Philip Caputo Crossers

Along with its beauty, the borderlands of Arizona are also well-known for thei
r occasional volatility. When Gil Castle, a New Yorker who loses his wife on
/11, goes to his cousins ranch in Arizona, he must deal with a threat as pre
scient as any faceless terrorist. Chronicling the largely-untold American
side of the Mexican Drug Wars, Caputos stor

Arkansas Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

Set in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas long before the civil rights m
ovement would come to fruition, Angelous literary autobiography has beco
me both an inspirational story and an important historical work in the
African-American community. While the work emphasizes the persecution she a
nd her family had suffered at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan and other rac
ists, Angelou is particularly uplifting in the treatment of her youth,
recognizing that th

California Thomas Pynchon Inherent Vice (2009)

Thomas Pynchon has a knack for creating megalithic novels with dozen
s of subplots and even more characters, but this toned-down novel is a col
orful and at times hilariousaccount of hi pie subculture along Southern Califo
rnias beautiful surf.Inherent Vicetells the story of Doc Sportello, a h
ippie d
Colorado Wally Lamb The Hour I First Believed (2008)

Wally Lamb is a master storyteller who can sublimely execute novels that

span generations. The novel follows Caelum and Maureen Quirk, two
middle-aged schoolteachers who move to Littleton, Colorado. But as
Caelum leaves briefly to go back to Connecticut, Maureen must suffer alone
as she gets caught up in the Columbine High School massacre. Her trauma
is not soon overcome, but as Caelum reconstructs their family history in
great detail, a collective pattern of grief and suffering is revealed.
Connecticut Sloan Wilson The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955)

While the focus of the two is very different, the currently-popular Mad
Men seems to have drawn much of its inspiration from this watershed novel
that foresees the dangers of corporate-office conformity and suburban
mundanity. Telling the story of a World War II veteran struggling to maintain
his place in corporate America while undergoing severe PTSD, the novel
attempts to define this new American experience in the impoverished
quarters of Westport, Connecticut.
Delaware Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club (1996)

One of the lesser-known aspects of this cult novel/film is that the major
financial sector they are attempting to compromise is actually based on
Wilmington, Delaware. The book, which differs slightly from the movie,
follows an imsomniac narrator who meets a mysterious man who invites
him into the alluring but destructive world of Fight Clubs and extremist,
anti-consumerist actions.

Florida Karen Russell Swamplandia! (2011)

While many American novels deal with the clash of different personalities
and peoples, novels that deal with the isolation of families and people
describe the multifaceted American experience just as
powerfully. Swamplandia! tells the story of family in Floridas 10,000 islands
region struggling to maintain their alligator-themed amusement park while
the isolation from the rest of the world takes its toll on both the three
children and their father.
Georgia James Dickey Deliverance (1970)

Since the 1972 adaptation of this novel, there has been a litany of
misconceptions tied to its subject matter, but beyond the horrors of its
violence, there is a much deeper message being communicated. The
carnage caused by some weekend adventuring in the backwoods of Georgia
is a rare return to the barest forms of human depravity that authors like
Joseph Conrad were confronting 70 years prior, but Deliverance also speaks
to the ever-growing divide between civilization and Hobbesian nature.
Hawaii Chris McKinney Tattoo (2007)

It is at times difficult for Hawaiian novels to gain traction on the American


mainland, but McKinneys story about troubled fatherhood in the down-andout underbelly of Oahu is a breath of fresh air for those tired of the islands
image as a utopian paradise. The novel follows a man named Ken as the
mystery of why he is incarcerated gets revealed through a retrospective
view of his life in Hawaiian organized crime.
Idaho Denis Johnson Train Dreams (2011)

Denis Johnson presents us with a work-in-progress Idaho. As the


countrys burgeoning growth forces men like Robert Grainier to build train
tracks and other infrastructure at astounding speeds, we must follow him as
he undergoes great suffering and ennui at the hands of natural and
emotional tremors. Few novels will better capture the atmosphere of a
certain region better than this one.
Illinois Sandra Cisneros The House on Mango Street (1984)

Cisneros beautifully poetic voice comes is expressed through the eyes of


Esperanza, a thirteen year-old Hispanic girl who finds solace from the
suffocating din of Chicagos immigrant communities by writing. While the
novel plays on many themes of Hispanic and feminist literature, this novel
is a refreshing take on the immigrant novel popularized at the beginning of
the 20th century by writers such as John Dos Passos and Theodore Dreiser.
Indiana Carol Shields The Stone Diaries (1993)

The Stone Diaries is a beautifully-wrought examination at a life fully lived,


mostly but not exclusively centered around the college town of
Bloomington, Indiana. It follows Daisy Goodwill and her surrounding family
as she lives a seemingly ordinary life, but the apparent banality of the novel
allows us to get a perfectly lucid look into 20th century life in North
America.
Iowa Marilynne Robinson Gilead (2004)

As Father Ames faces his final days, he recounts his familys past all the
way back to the civil war. A meditation upon death and a subtle
examination of daily life in Iowa, Robinson seems to be searching for the
roots of spiritual transcendence in the ordinary.Dont be fooled by the plot;
this novel does away with the bells and whistles to dissect the emotional
and moral foundations we hold ourselves upon.
Kansas- Thad Ziolkowski Wichita (2012)

Ziolkowski has the maturity of an experienced writer but also has an ear for
the voiceless youth of the American Midwest. While the plot sounds like a
fish-out-of-water talethe story of a struggling water escaping New York to
go back to his family in Wichitathe novel is reminiscent of Brett Easton
Ellis coming-of-age novella, Less Than Zero, where much emphasis is
placed on youth struggling to forge their identity.
Kentucky James Lee Burke To the Bright and Shining Sun (1970)

Even though the Appalachian mountains represent a huge geographical


area of the United States, so far there are few novels that actually describe

its beauties and secrets. Burkes tale about Perry, a young coal miner who
loses his job is a novel of formation that takes place in the deepest vestiges
of the Cumberland mines in Kentucky, but within the regions idyllic beauty
hides a violent labor struggle many Americans know little about.
Louisiana John Kennedy Toole A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

John Kennedy Tooles novel appeared eleven years after his tragic suicide in
1969, but that did not mean that his hilarious, pulitzer-prize-winning novel
about a New Orleans simpleton would not go unnoticed. One of the best
modern adaptations of the immortalized Don Quixote, the adventures of
the main character Ignatius J.Reilly present New Orleans in all its most
wondrous, carnivalesque variety.
Maine Richard Russo Empire Falls (2001)

The state of Maine has more than often been the biannual stomping
grounds of Stephen Kings fiction, but Russos story about a small-town
family struggling to keep a diner afloat speaks to the difficulties of
maintaining the idealized image of the American dream, especially in times
of economic trouble. Miles, the manager of the diner, is the patriarch of a
family attempting to maintain their identity as their town gradually falls into
bankruptcy.
Maryland James Michener Chesapeake (1978)

Micheners 800+ page historical work about the founding of some of


Americas first settlements is encyclopedic in its description of the regions
natural habitats, the first settlements, its religious conflicts, and of course
its introduction of slavery. Not only is the novel special for its description of
Maryland in its earliest form, but it portrays the first settlements as a
microcosm for many of the conflicts that would eventually beleaguer the
whole country.
Massachusetts David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest (1996)

Wallaces not-so-distant future focuses on several American settings, but


the bulk of the novel is concentrated on a mental institution and an
adjacent tennis academy near Boston. About an addictive movie that
supposedly takes violent control of its viewers, Wallaces masterpiece is a
humorous cautionary tale about the corporate-sponsored insanity that may
define America in the future.
Michigan Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex (2002)

This sprawling, inter-generational story about a Greek hermaphrodite


growing up in Detroit describes Michigans former crown jewel at its peak,
as well as the violence and poverty that lead to its tragic decline. An
immigrant novel with a twist, the colorful but turbulent life in the city gets
contrasted with the peaceful but uptight experience of its suburbs,
consistently combining the historical with the personal.

Minnesota Those Who Save Us Jenna Blum (2005)

Many novels on this list deal with the unearthing of the past, and Blums
novel about a woman in Minnesota rediscovering her German roots is as
beautiful as it is haunting. Trudy cannot remember her escape from
Germany with her mother and a Nazi officer, but the novel follows her
retrieval of the past as she tries to come to terms with the shame that
painfully ekes out it.
Mississippi Kathryn Stockett The Help (2009)

In literary circles, Mississippi was formerly the stomping grounds of William


Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, but Stocketts 2009 revitalized
popularity in both racial and Southern American literature. The story about
two black maids and the daughter of the family employing them pays
tribute to the divides that tore the region apart in the 1960s but it is also a
celebration of what eventually brought them together.
Missouri John Williams Stoner (1965)

A long-forgotten novel, Stoner, about an unassuming professor in a small


Missouri college town, was recently revitalized in popularity because of a
growing readership among small literary circles in America and the

Netherlands. Like Carol Shields The Stone Diaries, it is the normalcy of his
life that makes the portrait of it all the more familiar and dramatic.
Montana Norman Maclean A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
(1976)

Macleans semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Montanas


craggy mountains can arguably belong in the same category as Ernest
Hemingways meditative short stories, but as the vivid descriptions of the
title story suggest (Later adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt), the
natural world around you can do a lot to answer some of lifes most difficult
questions.
Nebraska Richard Powers The Echo Maker (2006)

After a car accident puts Mark Schluter into a coma, he gets nursed back to
health by his sister, but as his faculties improve, we soon find out he
believes her to be an impostor. Powers himself has insisted that this novel,
set in the town of Kearney, Nebraska, makes a point of specifying the voice
of the narrators to the point that nothing outside their own interpretation of
the world can rightfully be confirmed.
Nevada Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Although rooted in actual events, the zany, drug-fueled descriptions of


Americas Hyperreal playground Las Vegas are too surreal to be
nonfictional. Following Raoul (Thompson) and Dr.Gonzo (Attorney Oscar
Zeta Acosta) and their trips through the city, many consider the novel to
be the best description of the post-1960s era. Fortunately, it also inspired a
generation of authors and journalists alike to write in Thompsons
idiosyncratic Gonzo style.
New Hampshire John Irving A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)

Based on the town of Exeter in New Hampshire, Irvings novel was not only
a revelation for its confident treatment of spirituality, but it had also
produced one of the most unforgettable characters in recent memory. Short,
precocious and magnanimous, Meany helps protagonist John Wheelwright
come to terms with the death of his mother (which Owen causes,
accidentally) while courageously defying the limitations most impose upon
him.
New Jersey Philip Roth American Pastoral (1997)

Roth has set many of his novels in the New Jersey area, but his story about
The Swede, a former classmate of his who underwent a turbulent middleaged caused by various tragedies and historical events, is one of his finest
works. The novel refers to the suburban diaspora of the 1950s, but it is
subtly ironic; instead of fostering peace and solitude, it lead to the unrest
that would see his daughter take up arms against the establishment, for
better or for worse.
New Mexico Cormac McCarthy Cities of the Plain (1998)

Cormac McCarthy has written several remarkable novels about life in the
American Borderlands, and his account of ranchers in New Mexico is no
exception. About a cross-border love story between Alamogordo and Ciudad
Juarez, McCarthys storytelling is vivid and moving, though one cannot
avoid the inexorable arrival of destruction made all-the-more apparent with
every turn of the page.
New York William Gaddis J R (1976)

About an 11 year-old schoolboy who embezzles a fortune from penny stock


holdings, this wild novel teems with so many threads of broken narrative
and dialogue that the book becomes virtually unreadable, but Gaddis was
insistent on making it so. Set in both New York City and Massapequa, we
learn of the chaotic but altogether hilarious results of the American Dream
gone haywire.
North Carolina Wiley Cash A Land More Kind Than Home (2012)

Cashs story of two brothers who vow to protect each other at all costs in
rural North Carolina is a meditative take on the goodness and the evil
present in everybody. Set in the small town of Marshall, the novel attempts
to pick up whatever hope is left when each brothers proverbial loss of
innocence comes back at them with infernal fury.
North Dakota Jonathan Twingley The Badlands Saloon (2012)

There are many coming-of-age novels on this list, and for good reason; even
in the most isolated and barren of places, the need to communicate the
pleasures and difficulties of growing up are just as important. This partiallyillustrated novels setting, Marysville, is loosely based on the town of
Medora, North Dakota, but it is Twingleys surrealist vision of the towns
superficial tourist attractions that gives this debut novel so much
personality.
Ohio William H. Gass Omensetters Luck (1966)

Largely unheralded until David Foster Wallace proclaimed it to be one of the


most underrated books of the century, Gass exploration of Gilean, a
fictional small town in Ohio, is both playfully whimsical and deeply
thoughtful. When Brackett Omensetter arrives in the town in the 1890s, it
begins the slow but painful destruction of the town priest, Jethro Furber.
Oklahoma Toni Morrison Paradise (1998)

Toni Morrisons ironically-titled book tells the story of Ruby, Oklahoma, a


fictional black community where the attack on a convent of women is
perpetrated by jealous men in the adjacent town. Written with the migration
of African-Americans west from the volatile south-east, the novel describes
nearly a whole century of a town blessed with magical powers but riddled
by jealousies few have yet acted upon.
Oregon Ken Kesey Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)

Set deep in the Oregon mountains, the novel that followed Keseys 1962
masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is yet another seminal text of
the brief literary movement known as the New Consciousness. About the

conflicts between unionized loggers and the logging companies, the novel
follows a family who defies the unions and decides to cut on their own,
subscribing to the family motto to never give an inch.
Pennsylvania William Attaway Blood on the Forge (1941)

Just as Paradise follows the Great Migration of African Americans westward,


Attaways novel about the struggles of joining the Pennsylvanian working
class is the result of the same migration north. Centered around a mill just
outside of Pittsburgh, it is one of the first novels to combine the cause of
the proletariat with that of African-Americans.
Rhode Island Jeffry Eugenides The Marriage Plot (2011)

The second Eugenides novel on the list sees the author move away from
the streets of Michigan to the classrooms of Brown University. Though set in
several places along the east coast, it is his descriptions of the University
and Providence that will remain embedded in the mind of the reader. Few
novels have so enchantingly captured the zeitgeist of Ivy League campus
life as this one.

South Carolina Sue Monk Kidd The Secret Life of Bees (2002)

An uplifting trend among many novels on this list is that there is an


insistence on bridging the gap between white America and Black America.
This novel is no exception; about Lily, a young girl who saves Rosaleen a
wrongfully persecuted black maid from the local police, the story
describes their escape to an isolated apiary, where Lily will fall in love, but
not before a whole other series of violent conflicts will soon erupt.
South Dakota E.L. Doctorow Welcome to Hard Times (1960)

Doctorows debut novel would be the first of many to capture the most
beautiful and horrific aspects of American life. Welcome to Hard Times is
about a town called Hard Times in the Dakotas that gets ravaged by a
drifter, only to have the locals find the courage to rebuild it and face the
man down when he returns. Simply told, this short novel explores mans

relationship with evil, and the effects it has on those courageous enough to
challenge it.
Tennessee Susan Gregg Gilmore The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove
(2011)

A nostalgic but serious look at the class divides of 1960s Nashville,


Gilmores novel tells the story of the eccentric Grove family, whose three
previous matriarchs have all possessed the name Bezellia. At first, the
novel describes the idyllic Dixieland appeal of the era, but soon doubts are
raised about the stability of the family and the seriousness of the racial
divides between the wealthy white family and its black servants.
Texas Cormac McCarthy No Country for Old Men (2005)

Set in the barren lands of Southwestern Texas, McCarthys novel about a


drug exchange gone wrong and the man who found all of the money is
dark, thrilling, and is, like most of his other novels, steeped in the language
and mood of apocalypse. Though most know the story for the best-picturewinning adaptation of it by the Coen brothers, there is little that equals the
sharpness and pace of McCarthys prose.
Utah Norman Mailer The Executioners Song (1979)

About the life and death of Gary Gilmore, long-time criminal and murderer
of two men, The Executioners Song is a true-to-life dramatization of
Gilmores life in Utah from his time out of prison to his eventual execution in
1977, which he requested himself to be done as soon as possible, and by
firing squad.
Vermont Castle Freeman, Jr. Go With Me

Go With Me, a retelling of several stories in Thomas Malorys Le Morte


DArthur, is a haunting account of a woman getting chased in the woods of
Vermont by a mysterious figure. Told in a wry, fast-paced fashion, Freeman
wonderfully describes the unique quirks of Vermonts backwoods while also
using two of its quirky inhabitants to save the day. A quick read that you
will have trouble putting down.
Virginia Barbara Kingsolver Prodigal Summer (2000)

Henry David Thoreaus classic 1854 Walden did more than just influence a
whole generation of nature lovers. Rather, his work has remained an
important part of American literature, and it has inspired many authors,
including Kingsolver, to bridge the gap between literature and ecological
studies. About Deanna Wolf, a forest ranger in Southern Appalachia, the
novel takes an extremely close look at everything from the mating of moths
to the animistic properties of nearby mountains.
Washington Sherman Alexie Reservation Blues (1995)

Alexie revisits Robert Johnsons famous soul-selling at the crossroads in this


novel set in Washingtons Spokane region. About a aboriginal man who
discovers Johnsons famed guitar, the novel follows his newly-formed band
as they achieve success across the Northwest, before realizing that they
must serve a higher purpose with their music: to help out with a community
troubled by drug abuse, poverty and alcoholism.
West Virginia Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle (2005)

While it is the only full-fledged memoir on the list, The Glass Castle is
nevertheless a profoundly beautiful accomplishment. Partially set in several
impoverished areas of West Virginia, Jeanette describes her life growing up
with two eccentric but wholly maniacal parents, both of whom are
compulsive liars who raise their children with indifference to their suffering.
The Glass Castle of the title refers to an actual blueprint her father made of

such a structure, an idea only good for emphasizing the failure of her
parents in maintaining the illusion of happiness.
Wisconsin Chad Harbach The Art of Fielding (2011)

One of the only sports novels on the list, Harbachs novel takes us to the
shores of Lake Superior, where the fictional Westish College will soon
become one of the best baseball teams in the country because of phenom
shortstop Henry Skrimshander. Following him from freshman to senior
years, this novel beautifully examines the nature of sport and athletic
achievement, as well as the cost of sacrificing everything to get what you
want.
Wyoming Jon Billman When We Were Wolves (1999)

People should not be fooled by the title of this collection of short stories. As
opposed to the ranching, cowboys and Indians stereotype some still
have, When We Were Wolves shows us the opposite side of Wyoming, one
with artists, hockey players, impersonators and other whimsical characters.
Billmans work is for those who want to read fiction with David Sedaris in
mind.