The Fifties are known as an unquestioning conformist time, so I’ve picked some really good offbeat unconventional books written in the Fifties.  Four of the books below also ended up as offbeat movies.

“Absolute Beginners” by Colin MacInnes (1959) – Set in 1958, this novel shows that the youth culture in London was way cool even before the Sixties.  It was the second book of MacInnes’ London Trilogy, but it surpassed the other two books in popularity.  Julien Temple made “Absolute Beginners” into a super fine movie in 1986 (I own the DVD) which contains the song “Absolute Beginners” sung by David Bowie.


“Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor (1952) – Most famous for her short stories, O’Connor also wrote this ‘comedy of grotesques’ about a would-be itinerant preacher and his hapless followers.  This novel is a rich example of Southern Gothic.  It was made into a good movie by John Huston in 1979.

“Contempt” by Alberto Moravia (1954) – Alberto Moravia is one of my very favorite writers.  I must have read about ten of his novels, most of which were made into movies.  I like Moravia’s bluntness here, because this really is a novel about a woman’s contempt for her husband.  Brigette Bardot played the woman in Jean Luc Goddard’s 1963 movie based on ‘Contempt’, and it probably was her best role.


“The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy (1952) -  If you want a novel written by a woman that you can laugh yourself silly to while reading it, this is it. It is about Henry Mulcahy, a literary instructor and James Joyce expert.   He describes his colleagues thusly.  “Possibly they were all very nice high-minded scrupulous people, with only an occupational tendency toward back-biting and a nervous habit of self-correction”.  As far as I know, this novel has never been made into a movie, but it could make a great one even today.

“Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” by Jorge Amado (1958) -  Jorge Amado was a writer who wrote colorful stories about the people of Brazil.  I never get tired of his novels.  ‘Gabriela’ is one of his finest, a romantic comedy masterpiece by Amado who wrote several masterpieces.  It was made into a movie in the Eighties starring Sonia Braja.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bruce Hutton on May 8, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Hi, I like your blog and in particular your interest in early-mid 20th century novels, which are quickly falling so far out of favor I wouldn’t be surprised if some people didn’t know there WERE novels published 50 years ago. Anyway, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with your assessment of the Fifties as “an unquestioning conformist time,” although certainly that is the decade’s defining reputation. The Fifties is my personal favorite decade not just for books but movies, and there’s a lot there to see if a person takes the time to look. If anyone is interested, here’s a short list of some of my favorite books of the Fifties, by someone who’s read a lot of them.

    “From Here To Eternity” by James Jones
    “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac
    “The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk
    “The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit” by Sloan Wilson
    “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs
    “The Catcher In The Rye” by J.D. Salinger
    “The Searchers” by Alan LeMay
    “Some Came Running” by James Jones
    “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
    “By Love Possessed” by James Gould Cozzens
    “Kiss Me Deadly” by Mickey Spillane
    “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury
    “From The Terrace” by John O’Hara

    ….all American writers, all males. Yes, guilty as charged. But lack of diversity doesn’t mean they’re not great books. They are.


    • Hi Bruce Hutton,
      This is a real good list of 1950s novels. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of film noirs from the 50s, especially those with Robert Mitchum, and I’m now reading “The Cocktail Waitress” by James M Cain. Not sure *I’m ready for Mickey Spillane yet.
      I’ve read five from your list, ‘On the Road’, ‘From the Terrace’ (I plan on reading more O’Hara), ‘Invisible Man’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, and ‘The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit’. As you can tell, I come from the more ‘literary’ side. I have never read James Jones and am not sure what to make of him.


      • Posted by Bruce Hutton on May 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm

        Thanks for replying. Jones, I guess, can be kind of an acquired taste in the sense that his writing is not overtly literary. He wasn’t a trained writer, no degree or background in journalism, but I think that works to his advantage because he never tries to hide behind the intricacies of the language when writing; he just tells the truth, straight out. He’s my favorite writer, even though I wouldn’t call him the “best” writer. “From Here To Eternity” did win the National Book Award, so it got the stamp of approval in that sense. I highly recommend it.
        I’d be interested to hear what you think of the “new” James M. Cain book, if it’s in league with “Double Indemnity” or his other classics. Amazing the stuff they find, even long after the writer has died.


        • Some times ‘primitive’ writing captures the story the best. It usually would be fake to have a ground soldier talk like a Harvard professor. I’d like to read “From Here to Eternity’; it’s kind of a major undertaking (860 pages), so I’ll probably wait until retirement which isn’t too far away. I just read about James Jones on wikipedia, and he apparently was a quite serious writer founding a Writers’ Colony etc. I didn’t know that his daughter wrote ‘A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries’.
          I’m about a quarter through ‘The Cocktail Waitress’ and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a Mad Men era book about a cocktail waitress as its name implies, with a lot of shady things going on.


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