I hang out with a group of guys my wife affectionately refers to as the intellectual rednecks.
These are fellows of a certain vintage who, like me, hail from rural Kentucky, but came to feel inclined toward pursuits less taxing than deer hunting, coal mining or farm labor.
Not that there’s a thing wrong with deer hunting, coal mining or farm work; we just turned out to be far too lazy for such endeavors.
Attendance in our crew fluctuates, and from time to time includes a woman or two, but the mainstays are — besides yours truly — Chris Holbrook, short story writer, college professor and the only person of my acquaintance whose fiction has been favorably compared with Chekhov’s; Nick Stump, bluesman extraordinaire and raconteur; and Chris’ brother Jack, a retired computer whiz bang of some sort.
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We get together at Columbia Restaurant for Nighthawk Specials, or at an all-you-can eat sushi joint or at a Thai place. We spend an hour or two telling one another the same lies we’ve told every time before and laughing as if we’ve never heard them.
This isn’t productive, but it’s less belligerent than ramming our rascals into parked cars, so at least it keeps us out of trouble.
The other day, Chris wrote a post on Facebook suggesting I participate with him in the Favorite Book Challenge. In this challenge, each day for seven days you post a photo of the cover of one of your favorite books (that is, a different book each day).
Stump joined the online conversation. But neither Stump nor I could figure out how to find, much less post, book covers, which made the whole venture way too strenuous, so we dropped out.
However, I did mention in a comment the books I would have posted if I knew how to do it. I ended up with 10 entries instead of seven.
That prompted Chris to post in rapid succession the covers of those same books, including with each a sarcastic comment about how enervating and mind-rending the task was.
Friends, this is what happens when you start breaking bread with country boys who’ve gotten above their raising. No good can come of it. No good at all.
This is also what passes for humor among the senile semi-literati.
Anyway, I decided to offer you my list of books, without Chris’ commentary or the book-cover photos. I’ve done lists like this before, you may recall, but my canon keeps changing.
I’m including only works of fiction. If I included non-fiction, this would get unwieldy.
Here are my current favorites — either the greatest books I’ve read or those that, if not great, influenced me greatly at some point:
▪ “The Power and the Glory,” by Graham Greene. By far the finest novel about religion I know of, and probably the best novel period. I once wrote an entire column waxing rhapsodic about Greene’s unforgettable protagonist, the whisky priest. If I could foist one book on all of you, this would be it.
▪ “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. Here’s one I was prepared to dislike, a dystopian tale about what appears to be the aftermath of a nuclear war. Not my thing. Except it’s actually a beautiful, hopeful, gut-wrenching story of the love between a father and son. This never happens to me, ever —but at the final paragraph I closed the book and wept.
▪ “The Natural Man,” by Ed McClanahan. A delightful yarn about high school boys in the 1950s. It’s peerless among coming-of-age novels (except perhaps for “Huckleberry Finn” … see below). In the interest of full disclosure, I should say the author his own self occasionally graces our intellectual redneck outings with his exalted personage and, true to form, tells better whoppers than the rest of us.
▪ “The Complete Stories,” by Flannery O’Connor. “The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.” “Collected Stories,” by William Faulkner. All three of these 20th-century icons of Southern literature wrote novels, yet to my taste all three hit their respective peaks as short story writers. Yes, many fans would disagree with me.
▪ “The Memory of Old Jack,” by Wendell Berry. Berry’s pastoral novel about an elderly farmer whose mind is slipping away feels quiet and contemplative, but packs a punch.
▪ “Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain. This is the granddaddy of modern American novels, of course. It’s Twain at his apex — jaw-achingly funny and deceptively poignant. Huck and Jim tackle slavery and other perils of “civilization.”
▪ “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. A classic tale of Jim Crow racism — and also another coming-of-age story. When I first encountered it as a teenager, I found it so revelatory that afterward I re-read it annually. For several reasons, I doubt I’d enjoy it as much today.
▪ “Breakfast of Champions,” by Kurt Vonnegut. This Vonnegut novel made me want to become a writer. But I recently returned to the author’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” and only got 30 pages in before my interest waned. Vonnegut’s absurdist style didn’t appeal to me at 62 the way it did when I was 22. Now I’m not sure how well “Breakfast of Champions” would bear up, either.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at email@example.com.