Fiction allows you to travel throughout the world without leaving your own house. I realize this is about the worst of cliches, but whether the city or town in a novel is real or not, the imagination or precision of the author takes you there. The following are ten excellent novels which have a city or town name in their title.
‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson (2004) – Gilead, Iowa is a fictional small town. Robinson’s novels achieve a depth that only the finest fiction writers can reach. ‘Gilead’ is the first novel of a strong trilogy. It is mighty difficult being the wayward son of a preacher man.
‘Our Man in Havana’ by Graham Greene (1958) – Here is a black comedy about the British Secret Service set in Havana, Cuba predating the Castro Revolution of 1959. Discovering Graham Greene was one of the signal events in my fiction reading career, and I tore through nearly all of his novels in about ten years.
‘Petersburg’ by Andrei Bely (1913) – Here is a Russian modernist masterpiece that was actually written in the twentieth century. What ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce does for Dublin, Ireland, ‘Petersburg’ does for St. Petersburg, Russia, though there is no indication that Joyce read Petersburg before writing ‘Ulysses’ nine years later.
‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ by Muriel Spark (1960) – This is early Muriel Spark, another writer not to be missed. It is about what happens to the Peckham Rye neighborhood of London when a Scottish migrant wreaks havoc on its inhabitants. Spark is one writer who was able to come up with a totally different plot for every short novel she wrote.
‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ by Hubert Selby Jr. (1964) – This powerful fiction is a series of stories dealing with the seamier, rougher side of life which includes drug use, street violence, gang rape, homosexuality, transvestism, and domestic assault. It was put on trial for obscenity in England and was banned in Italy.
‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot (1871) – ‘Middlemarch’ is probably my favorite novel of all time. Middlemarch is a fictional Midlands England town. Who could possibly forget the terrible marriage between Dorothea and the older Casuabon?
‘The Road to Wellville’ by T. Coraghessan Boyle (1993) – ‘Wellville’ is a humorous portrait of John Harvey Kellogg, the preposterous inventor of corn flakes, and his Battle Creek, Michigan sanitarium. It is one of the funniest things I have ever read.
‘Sparta: A Novel’ by Roxana Robinson (2013) – I was born near the small town of Sparta, Wisconsin. Robinson’s novel has nothing to do with my Sparta, rather it refers to the Greek city-state. Actually what it is about is the plight of an Iraq war veteran returning to civilian life. Robinson is one of the writers whose new novels I watch for.
‘Winesburg, Ohio’ by Sherwood Anderson (1919) – These are realistic stories of small-town American life in the Midwest. Living in a small town is not so simple as it is sometimes made out to be. Oh, the loneliness and isolation.
‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis (1989) – Like his father Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis had great success early in his career, later not so much. Kingsley Amis will always be remembered for his first novel ‘Lucky Jim’, and Martin Amis will occasionally be remembered for his early novel ‘London Fields’.
There are many, many more including ‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan, ‘The Woman of Rome’ by Alberto Moravia, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ by Christopher Isherwood. ‘Paris Stories’ and ‘Montreal Stories’ by Mavis Gallant, ‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen, and ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada.