Best books about NYC
Mammoth and sweeping, DeLillo’s brick of a book proffers a kaleidoscopic view of the city and the nation, as each clatters through the second half of the 20th century and the Cold War. Though the central story involves an affair between waste management exec Nick Shay and artist Klara Sax, DeLillo steps into the shoes of a multitude of characters—among them, J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce. Like New York itself, the 800-page Underworld is fiercely ambitious, messy, multifarious and while it seems overwhelming at a distance, its rich details and worlds within worlds prove endlessly enriching up close.
If each of us contains multitudes, Ellison’s ferocious protest novel illustrates how each multitude might be prodded, harassed and eventually broken by a city full of those willing to exploit for their own gain. After some difficult and disturbing experiences in the South, Ellison’s unnamed, black narrator pinballs between white employers, unsound women and the Communist party (here called the Brotherhood) in ’30s Harlem. New York is present here as the sort of machine every resident sometimes feels it is: The city’s implacable systems don’t just break Ellison’s narrator, they render him imperceptible.
Too intricate to properly sum up here, the plot kicks off when the Jewish Josef Kavalier escapes Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939. In New York, he and cousin Sammy Clayman make comic books, face commercial exploitation and slowly question everything about their respective identities. While lending a grand vision to the prototypical immigrant tale—acclimation, opportunity, success—Chabon also includes the zip and pow of set pieces that would work as well in the sort of pulp his characters crank out. And what lover of New York literature could resist a cliffhanger with costumes and heroic feats on top of the Empire State Building?
Morrison’s tale of mad love, murder and mourning is not about jazz; it is jazz. Set in Harlem in the mid-’20s, this novel explores and explodes the lives of wife and husband Violet and Joe Trace—who, like many of the era, made their way from the rural South to the metropolitan North as part of the Great Migration. When Joe’s affair with young, pimply Dorcas consumes him and he kills her, every rattled character in their small world unburdens him or herself to the reader. No one riffs, rolls or waxes poetic like Morrison. Her New York—throbbing, thrilling, dangerous—imposes itself on every event and every line.
Though the character has endured countless faded reiterations in literature, TV and film since the early ’50s, Salinger minted a particular sort of estranged, adolescent rebel-sans-cause when he invented Catcher narrator Holden Caulfield. Despite his privileges, the disaffected prep-school reject can only see New York as a kingdom at once tainted and full of unattainable riches. Girls, friends and former teachers annoy him or vice versa; he can’t dodge the phonies; and he’ll never stop kids from seeing the words “fuck you” scribbled on the walls of the Museum of Natural History. It’s still the most approachable portrait of teenage antipathy out there.
Though each of Lethem’s other novels might qualify as more obsessive in their New York detail, this tale of boyhood friendship in 1970s Boerum Hill is the most loving and most evocative of a transforming city. Geeky white kid Dylan Ebdus meets the much cooler, mixed-race grafitti artist Mingus Rude; though they discover a magic ring that bestows the power of flight on the wearer, their relationship comes under strain. Lethem details their Brooklyn, with all its stickball games and schoolyard DJ dance parties, with a gentle, affectionate hand.
Though a patriarch’s death creates a seismic shift in the story, the essential New York bildungsroman is not defined by its big moments. The narration is trained on 12-year-old Francie Nolan, who goes to school, indulges in penny candy, enjoys Christmas holidays and invents stories about the characters she sees around her in the slums of Williamsburg. Despite the book’s unhurried pacing, Smith’s warm and descriptive prose envelops the reader. As Francie grows, works, loves and becomes her own person, her mother must learn to let her go; the reader must do the same.
With this diabolical satire, Ellis nails the avarice and sense of invincibility inherent in the world of downtown finance in the ’80s. A blur of designer suits, embossed business cards and dinners at Orso provide a front for young stockbroker Patrick Bateman’s secret New York life: The ruthless torture and murder of young women. As funny as it is horrifying, American Psycho pushes the reader’s sympathies for not only Bateman, but Ellis himself, and the entire infrastructure of our financial capital. Plus, the reader will never hear Huey Lewis and the News the same way again.
New York isn’t always the frenetic, whiz-bang metropolis of writers like Tom Wolfe; sometimes, its pace of its streets and subways slows enough to offer the sort of reflective, nuanced contemplation that would make W.G. Sebald or Geoff Dyer proud. In the period of his psychiatric residency, Cole’s Nigerian-born narrator, Julius, walks, takes in sights, meets friends, exits and returns to the city all while tripping down the corridors of memory—both individual and collective. When a disturbing revelation upturns the reader’s assumptions about Julius, it forces a new perspective on the city as well.
Journalist and critic Renata Adler’s recently reissued mid-’70s novel is an idiosyncratic wonder that offers up an animated, ridiculous and nasty New York City in jagged little parcels of prose. The plot is minimal: Adler stand-in Jen Fain navigates partners, parties and professional duties both local and out-of-state. As the modernist clusters of Speedboat slide from autobiography to fiction and from reportage to satire, they deliver a distinctive, forceful take on the city. The book’s restlessness also presaged our current literary obsession with divisions between author and narrator—including Ben Lerner and his of-the-moment New York meditation 10:04.