6 Great Examples of Dirty and Gritty American Fiction

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In the introduction to the latest (and best issue in quite some time) of Granta, “American Wild,” editor Sigrid Rausing tells a story about hitting the open road across America in the early 1980s and coming to the realization that, “this is America: a genuinely wild land.” The anecdote got us to thinking about books that really capture the raw beauty, as well as the dangers, that America has to offer from sea to shining sea. These are novels that especially evoke mental imagery of broken down towns, large swaths of wilderness, and other places you might not want to get lost in.

Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins

“Mirage,” which is listed as “an excerpt from a new project” by Watkins, is one of the standouts of the latest issue of Granta — so this, her debut collection of dark and dusty stories from the American west, has to lead off this list.

Norwood, Charles Portis

Norwood sometimes gets forgotten since Portis might be best-known today for writing the novel True Grit — which is sad when you consider what a great tale of going from Texas to New York in the late 1960s this one is. It does a fine a fine job of showing a funny, often dark, side of America.

Already Dead, Denis Johnson

One of Johnson’s underrated works, this “California gothic” — the tale of a California rich-kid-turned-big-time-fuck-up — shows a dark side of California that we all know exists, but few have been able to portray so well.

The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson

Dark and dirty Texas. Thompson is like Cormac McCarthy’s creepy cousin from Texas or Oklahoma, with a penchant for writing hardboiled crime novels like nobody else. This one will especially leave you picking the sand out of your teeth.

Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer

Wurlitzer’s postmodern tale of wandering across America maybe captured the country in the 1960s better than any other. That’s probably why he’s made fans out of the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Will Oldham.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

Is there any spot on the map you can point to that is collectively as strange as the entire state of Florida? The answer is no, and Russell, who has used her home state’s bizarreness to create literary magic, shone with this stunner.