“The Club King,” Peter Gatien (2020)
Nightclubs and their ongoing assault against the tyranny of personal space are a cesspool of viral activity, and the odds of getting a tequila shot spilled on you at Holocene this year are slim. A pseudo-alternative is The Club King, the new memoir by the kingpin of Manhattan nightlife in the 1980s, Peter Gatien. Gatien is either hero or villain depending on what mood you're in, but his story is undeniably an account of psychedelic excess, which is in short supply these days. Come for the platinum anecdotes, stay for the tirade against Rudy Giuliani.
“Swamplandia!,” Karen Russell (2011)
Swamplandia occupies a space between reality and holography, a strange sort of reality-plus not unlike the times we are living in right now. Tragically, what we don't have access to at the moment are gator-wrestling theme parks, which is exactly what Karen Russell takes on in her heady, outlandish fiction debut. Swamplandia! is about the show business of creatures—snakes, mosquitoes, Florida men and "swamp centaurs"—as well as the 13-year-old girl at the apex of it all. It's bizarre and dreamy in all the ways that quarantine is bizarre and sad.
“If I Had Your Face,” Frances Cha (2020)
In many ways, Frances Cha's buzzy debut is an unpacking of female wish-fulfillment—the aesthetic ideals we find it too difficult to question, the fantasies we fall in love with, and the markers of happiness we learn to accept. In a less philosophical, purely coincidental way, If I Had Your Face is an ode to pre-pandemic life. The book is about what goes on behind closed doors, but for most of us, those doors haven't been opened in some time, at least not enough to shelter any illicit activity. The plastic surgery operations, salon appointments and late-night bar conversations that Cha describes are now squarely within the fantasy genre.
“Friday Night Lights,” Buzz Bissinger (1990)
Yes, like the TV show. Whether or not you have a passing interest in the inner workings of high school football, Friday Night Lights is a rare piece of narrative nonfiction that works for any audience. Thirty years ago, journalist Buzz Bissinger moved to the small town of Odessa, Texas, to report on the outsized importance of high school football in places where local celebrity peaks at 18. What he produced was an honest, compelling account of young power in the South. It'll be some time before anyone will stand shoulder to shoulder on metal bleachers again, so this is your consolatory literary stand-in.
“Names for the Sea,” Sarah Moss (2013)
Ah, to abandon the continental United States and take up a new life in Reykjavik, living among the volcanic craters and Icelandic cod—or to travel anywhere at all. Author and academic Sarah Moss, in her signature visual prose, describes what it was like to move to a cold new place on a whim, adapting to a temporary homeland that is at once strikingly beautiful and economically fragile. "The northern sky, dark over the sea, is mottled with green that spreads like spilt paint, disappears and spreads again," Moss writes. "I tread water, and watch."
Guest Recommendation: Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis
"What a seamless, cohesive, verging on sweetly claustrophobic voice this is. I really admired the flow. There's a passage, for instance, that is amazing, traveling from a night watching lucha libre to listening to the Smiths to a classmate's account of meeting Morrissey on an escalator and framing the resultant autograph, then a reminder of an earlier trip to the apartment where [William S.] Burroughs shot his wife. There's also a paragraph about running out into a storm that contains the sentence, 'A giant hand of wind grabbed our house and rattled it,' that is the finest paragraph I've read in a very long time." —Peter Rock, author of The Night Swimmers.