10 Literary Masterpieces

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe

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.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

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. If you can’t appreciate the book’s wild improvisational nature, try Dharma Bums or Big Sur.

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.

The Risk of Being Ridiculous by Guy Maynard

Maynard grew up in Urbana, Illinois, a year ahead of me, and was one of the leading figures in the garage-band movement that started around 1966. His book takes place in 1969 and really captures the intensity of the times. I gave it a rave review in High Times and it inspired me to dig up my own archives.

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 Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, and Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone.

Joseph Heller and Louis-Ferdinand Celine

In 1970, I attended a lecture by Joseph Heller at Valparaiso University. Heller’s best-selling novel (Catch-22) was about to be released as a major motion picture.

During the lecture, Heller mentioned the inspiration for his main character came from a French novelist. I made a mental note to check out that novelist, but by the time I got home, I’d already forgotten his name. So I wrote a letter to Heller.

Much to my surprise, I got a quick response providing the answer as well as recommendations for other writers to check out. I immediately read Journey to the End of the Night and afterwards, Catch-22 seemed like a pale imitation (sorry Joe). I couldn’t understand how a book that created the modern anti-hero and revolutionized stream-of-consciousness writing remained so obscure. I considered myself an authority on counterculture literature, and had been reading everything I could find for over five years, and yet, didn’t discover Celine until I was 19 years old.

The reason seemed to be Celine had become a rabid anti Semite after the lack of success of his first novel. Maybe his first publisher was Jewish and that got the ball rolling. But our two most famous American novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway were both notorious anti Semites, and The Sun Also Rises positively drips with hatred of Jews and gays, yet it didn’t seem to hold back Hemingway’s career at all.

Celine wasn’t the only man of letters to conclude that a conspiracy existed between British intelligence and some dynastic banking families of Jewish heritage. Didn’t Ezra Pound come to similar conclusions?

Journey to the End of the Night is a masterpiece and should have been recognized as such. The fact that Celine later in life wrote essays suggesting Jews should be expelled from France really should have no impact on his previous work as an artist, especially since there are no traces of antisemitism in his first novel.

Of course, Heller was Jewish himself, and Catch-22 never would have existed without Celine’s inspiration. If critics are going to insist on rejecting Celine’s considerable artistic accomplishments based on views he later expressed in essays, then I’m afraid there is very long line of racists whose work ought be treated with equal disdain. Celine was a huge influence on William S. Burroughs and many other groundbreaking novelists. Bukowski called him “the greatest writer of 2,000 years.”

Within a few months, I would write “The Stockholm Manifesto,” a rant heavily influenced by Celine. You can read the short story in my fiction collection titled 1966.