10 of Literature’s Greatest Comeback Books


Though Tom Wolfe’s last novel, 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, fell flat for many readers and reviewers — Michiko Kakutani called it “disappointingly empty” — some critics are heralding his new effort, Back to Blood, which hit bookstores this week, as his comeback book. Only time will tell, of course, but the idea got us thinking about a few other important books that have pulled some of our favorite authors back from the brink of oblivion (or worse, bad reviews). After the jump, read about the many ways authors have dusted off and recharged their careers with a well-placed tome, and as always, add any we’ve missed in the comments.

The Old Man and the Sea , Ernest Hemingway

The 1940s were not good for Hemingway. He described himself as being “out of business as a writer” from 1942 to 1945, and fell into a depression fueled by physical problems and the fact that many of his friends — Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Max Perkins — were dying around him. In 1950, he published Across the River and Into the Trees, which was roundly panned. The following year, as if in furious revenge, he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, which was to be his last book, and some say his best — in any event, it won a Pulitzer and firmly re-established his literary reputation.

Bright Shiny Morning , James Frey

We don’t think we have to re-hash the whole James Frey falling from grace thing here. But we will say that as bad as Frey’s reputation was, he came back huge with the excellent Bright Shiny Morning. As Janet Maslin at the New York Times wrote, “He got a second act. He got another chance. Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park.” Or perhaps more succinctly, to quote Irvine Welsh, “Bright Shiny Morning amounts to the literary comeback of the decade.”

A Scanner Darkly , Philip K. Dick

Ever since publishing his first story in 1951, Dick was a full-time writer, and an extraordinarily prolific one, writing more than 40 novels between 1951 and 1970. In 1970, though, following his fourth divorce, he hit a wall, descending into dependence on drugs, hanging out with street people, and quitting writing entirely. Only years later did he come back with A Scanner Darkly, a fictionalized account of those rough times, and was firmly re-established in the public imagination.

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack , Mark Leyner

In the ’90s, Mark Leyner was often referred to in the same breath as David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen — indeed, a 1996 Charlie Rose episode on “The Future of American Fiction” assembled just these three, young and incredible writers all. And it’s not like Leyner was the least of the pack: he had appeared on the cover of The Times Magazine with the splashy headline “America’s Best-Built Comic Novelist,” he had a column in Esquire, he showed up on the shows of David Letterman and Conan and Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. But until this year, with the publication of the hilarious and certifiably insane The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, the kids who venerate (or squabble over) DFW and Franzen had forgotten Leyner, who published his last novel in 1997. They might still not have gotten the hint, but we have faith that they will. Darn kids these days.

A Game of Thrones , George R.R. Martin

Martin began publishing short stories in the early ’70s, and his first novel in 1977. By the time he published his first book, Armageddon Rag, in 1983, he was expecting a home run, and instead came up with a massive failure. “It was the worst-selling of all my novels and essentially destroyed my career as a novelist at the time,” he told the Financial Times . “Oddly enough, the same book that essentially crippled my career as a novelist started my career in Hollywood.” Martin kicked around television for a while, spending five years writing pilots and developing shows that never made it to air. So in 1991, as a failed novelist and a failed TV producer, he left Hollywood to go write A Song of Ice and Fire. We wonder how that ended up doing on TV.

Mercy of a Rude Stream , Henry Roth

First off, we’d better say that Call It Sleep, Roth’s 1934 masterpiece, was itself a comeback novel — originally garnering only mixed reviews, it was reprinted in 1964 and skyrocketed, becoming a national bestseller and critical darling. But Roth also suffered from writer’s block from Call It Sleep‘s publication until 1979 (!) when he began working on Mercy of a Rude Stream. So after spending decades in silence, what Leonard Michaels called “the long comeback of Henry Roth” began to unfold, first with 1987’s Shifting Landscape, a collection of early prose and interviews, and setting up camp with the first volume of Mercy, finally published in 1994, the year before he died. Though the new novel was widely considered to be a relative disappointment, nowhere near the brilliance of Call It Sleep, it still served to reawaken the Roth fervor and cement his place as an American master.

Advertisements for Myself , Norman Mailer

Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was a huge success, and the author, only twenty-five at the time, was heralded as a precocious new hero for American fiction. Quite right — but Mailer’s next two novels, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, were critical disappointments, and Mailer decided to become the man we know today. “His solution,” explains Louis Menand at The New Yorker , “was to make himself — his opinions, his grievances against the publishing industry, his ambitions — part of his subject.” And what better way to do so than with an essay collection entitled Advertisements for Myself?

The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? , Padgett Powell

Padgett Powell started off strong — his 1984 debut novel Edisto, was a National Book Award finalist that Walker Percy favorably compared to The Catcher in the Rye — but quickly began to flounder, writing and publishing more experimental works that couldn’t find an audience. By the time he published The Interrogative Mood in 2009, he had been unable to get anything published for almost a decade, his last peep being 2000’s unfairly-ignored Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men. This is a weird comeback — a novel all in questions — but hey, we’ll take it.

Clockers , Richard Price

Richard Price burst onto the literary scene in 1974 with The Wanderers, which William S. Burroughs called a “deeply moving account of confused and spiritually underprivileged youth.” He followed it up with three more books on a semi-annual basis, each a progressive faltering that tarnished his original glow. He moved his attentions to Hollywood, where he had great success writing scripts, and only nearly a decade later returned to fiction with Clockers, which was much adored and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.

Hawkes Harbor , S.E. Hinton

We all know S.E. Hinton as the author of YA classics like The Outsiders (which she began writing when she was only 17), and Rumble Fish, but after Taming the Star Runner in 1988 she was silent for a whopping 16 years, barring two children’s books she wrote in ’95. In 2004, she came back on the scene with aplomb, publishing a pretty great adult novel, Hawkes Harbor, followed by a collection of short stories. We’re just hoping for more.