Looking for reader recommendations: Great city novels

I am in the process of watching the fifth and last season of the remarkable HBO series, The Wire. For me, it’s one of the best things ever done in the medium, and knowing there are no more to follow leaves me looking for a great big messy jaded city novel to sink myself into. Others have already made this comparison, but The Wire was really like a novel in David Simon’s willingness to take time to let the story unfold through detours into minor and major characters, to move up and down the social strata, to delve into intrigues high and low.

But what can one novels compare to The Wire? I can think of a few: Bleak House, at least in its span of social class and its unforgettable opening description of London; some of Zola’s Paris novels, such as Money. Mark Smith’s loose baggy monster Chicago novel, The Death of the Detective. I recently devoured a pretty good novel, William L. White’s What People Said, with a similar range but in the far tamer setting of several Kansas towns of the early 20th century.

But I’m putting out a call to other readers: can you offer some other suggestions? There must be a few more juicy word-packed book that can compete with the likes of The Wire.

16 thoughts on “Looking for reader recommendations: Great city novels

  1. The very closest thing to The Wire is Richard Price’s Clockers: it works similarly, showing complex characters on both sides of the law, getting deep into the details of how this industry–and thus how this city–works, and approaching it almost like an anthropological or cultural investigation into all aspects of urban crime and policing. Think of it as a London Labour and the London Poor for 1980s New Jersey. George Pelecanos’s DC novels are similar, though I think not as good; Pelecanos wrote for The Wire as well, and I think his talents showed themselves to best effect there.

    If you’re looking for 19th-century stuff, Dickens’s most urban novel by far (and I think his best) is Our Mutual Friend; in his Atlas of the European Novel Franco Moretti wrote a fascinating essay about how it demonstrated a new understanding of urban geography. (Robert Alter has also written well about Dickens and cities, in his Imagined Cities.)

    Mark Smith’s book is a great one, and not quite like anything else I can think of. There’s got to be some other 20th-century books that fit your request, but nothing’s coming to mind right now. I’ll check back if I come up with anything.

  2. While I think “Bleak House” is the greatest city novel ever written, sometimes I am more in the mood for Balzac, whose “Cousin Bette” gives us a completely unsentimental, at times almost unbearably gritty portrait of the Paris of Louis Philippe. Balzac, more than Dickens, wanted to show how all the parts of society–high and low–interconnected and depended upon one another, and in so doing he takes us from the halls of government straight to the gutter.

    For the 20th century, Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” goes the “magic realist” route but does offer a finely detailed, multi-layered portrait of New York City throughout several phases of its history (and future), and contains some of the most breathtaking passages of urban description I have ever read. Much of the book may seem facetious, but it may help to know that it is all strongly grounded in (sometimes obscure) New York history. In fact, it has much in common with “The Death of the Detective.”

  3. I’m glad to see I’m not alone in considering “The Death of the Detective” a remarkable work that greatly deserves its recent reissue by Northwestern University Press. And “Winter’s Tale” is an excellent suggestion–I don’t think Helprin stands a chance of ever coming close to reaching this height again–at least in long fiction.

    I suppose Balzac is the place to look for now. I have a copy of the Modern Library reissue of The Wrong Side of Paris from several years ago, so perhaps I’ll give that a try.

    I can’t help thinking, though, though, that there’s some big thick over-written and perhaps over-ambitious, yet fascinating, book on New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, London, or …..?

  4. Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert, from 1943 (though written well before Pearl Harbor), and one of the very last books praised by H.G. Wells, is a pretty large (500-page), multilayered, fevered novel about organized crime and the way it affects various social strata in NYC. (It was the basis for Abraham Polonsky’s celebrated film Force Of Evil starring John Garfield and Thomas Gomez.) University of Illinois Press has it in print – it was reissued in 1997 as part of the series The Radical Novel Reconsidered.

  5. Try William Dean Howells. A HAZARD OF NEW FORTUNES is probably the best, but A MODERN INSTANCE isn’t far behind.

  6. I hope I’m not coming to this thread too late — a few more recommendations come to mind immediately. Benito Perez Galdos’s great novel “Fortunata and Jacinta,” about Madrid; Fernando Pessoa’s great non-novel “The Book of Disquiet,” about Lisbon: both over-written, over-stuffed, altogether spellbinding. And if over-writing about a city is your thing, you can’t do better than Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.” Let me also put in a word for an extremely peculiar, experimental, and probably unsuccessful (but still fascinating) novel by the historian Mari Sandoz, “Capital City,” about political corruption and fascist politics in an imaginary Midwestern city very much like Lincoln, Nebraska.

  7. Lee–Thanks for the tips. I’ve read several others by Perez Galdos, and they all gave a strong sense of the characters living and moving in the midst of a multi-layer cake of life. I will definitely check out “Capital City”–sounds like a good follow-up to “What People Said”–the high and the low and the politics of the Midwest.

  8. The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren gets the my prize. “Messy and jaded” in the extreme, it wallows in the austere hunger of poverty.

  9. I second the recommendation of Galdos, Fortunata and Jacinta, and add Sarkar, Chowringhee (

  10. Here’s what the Telegraph of Calcutta had to say about Chowringhee last summer:

    A Bengali novel published in 1962 and into its 100th edition has been resurrected. This time in English and the magic has cast its spell yet again. The English translation of Sankar’s Chowringhee has not just crossed the 12,000 mark in sales but has also been picked by a noted panel for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award for 2007 in the Indian Language Translation in English category.

    Shahjahan hotel and its inmates Marco Polo, Sata Bose and Karabi Guha are etched in the memory of those on the wrong side of 40. The film of the same name, starring Uttam Kumar, Supriya Chowdhury and Subhendu Chattopadhyay, also did its bit to popularise the novel.

    The goings-on behind the façade of a five-star hotel in the fifties are also finding takers among the 20- and 30-year- olds. “There must be a certain element of universalism in the novel. It captured the imagination of the urban elite,” says the author.

    Sankar himself is intrigued by Chowringhee’s success in translation “when much better novels like Pather Panchali have failed in English”.

    It took Vikram Seth’s recommendation, who read the novel in Hindi, to spur Penguin into translating Chowringhee. Arunava Sinha’s translation in 1992 was fished out. “There is nothing dated about Chowringhee. It is so much about people that the story carries well ahead of its background and period,” says the translator, who is now on the verge of finishing Sankar’s other celebrated work, Jana Aranya.

    Sounds like a great recommendation and a long-overdue English publication.

  11. Last Nights in Paris by Phillipe Soupault, translated by William Carlos Williams, paints an evocative picture of Paris in the late 1920s.

  12. Just saw the plea for American city novels. While none of these is “neglected,” my favorite Chicago novel is Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. John Dos Passos is great for New York in the 1920s and 30s; his books are the literary equivalent of Robert Frank’s photographs (but a couple of decades earlier). If you’re watching The Wire, I’m sure you’ve read Richard Price’s mega-hit Lush Life, but if you haven’t you should rush out immediately and get it — it’s an amazing portrait of contemporary life on the Lower East Side. And — don’t laugh — Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber is my all-time-favorite New Orleans novel.

  13. A reviewer on Amazon wrote of Last Nights Of Paris

    I’ve always admired this book, and it seems I go back to it almost every day, and try to peek into it. I first read it twenty years ago, and still don’t feel that I know what it is about, and I don’t think anybody else does either. The French criticism doesn’t go into the obvious Spenglerian feeling of the title, nor does it go into detail concerning the strange murders and deaths that take place within a double love-story. As the Seine winds through Paris, so the narrator winds, with a strange and curious indifference as well as passion. This book details odd meetings with thieves, prostitutes, and the clock at the top of what is now the Musee d’Orsay (but was then a major train station). But why? The book is so strange, and yet so familiar, like walking in Paris at night, and yet more vividly observed than one would believe possible. Nothing happens in the book, and yet everything happens. This book is a freak that no one will ever understand. It just has to be experienced, like a dream that seems to have a mysterious cogency that one can never formulate into anything that can be logically understood.

    Another experimental novel from the same period (and also a city novel about Paris) is Louis Aragon’s Surrealist classic, Paris Peasant.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

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