People often talk about the characters in books as if they were considering whom to invite to a dinner party. "Oh, I just hated her — she was so mean." "He's a bully; I didn't like how he treated his mother." There's something to be said for a likable character, but fiction has a way of upending our ordinary standards. In life we like tranquility; in books we love tension. And in these three books you'll find protagonists you'd hate to meet — you'd change train cars to get away from any of them — but you'll love on the page.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Who likes the company of mean people? People who lie, cheat, steal? Well, author Ben Dolnick does, at least in fiction. For our series Three Books, he has this essay about three depraved, reprehensible protagonists. They are his absolute favorites.
BEN DOLNICK: People often talk about the characters in books as if they were considering who to invite to a dinner party: Oh, I just hated her, she was so mean. He's a bully. I didn't like how he treated
There's something to be said for a likable character, but great fiction has a way of upending our ordinary standards. In life, we like tranquility; in books, we love tension. And in these three books, you'll find protagonists you'd hate to meet in real life. You'd change train cars to get away from any of them, but who you'll love on the page.
DOLNICK: Philip Roth has made a cottage industry of unlikable characters, but compared to Mickey Sabbath, the furious and profane protagonist of "Sabbath's Theater," Roth's earlier creations seem like Winnie the Pooh. Sabbath is an aging puppeteer, reeling from the death of his mistress, ablaze with hatred for just about everyone. As he barrels through the stages of grief - stealing from his friends, lusting after his students - you'll wonder if there's anything good about him at all. But Roth's fictional machinery has never run at such an astonishing clip. The book is a ferocious delight.
Legend has it that Malcolm Lowry's friends kept suitcases next to their doors, so they could pretend to be leaving town if he came by wanting to stay over. By the time you've finished this brilliant semi-autobiographical novel, you'll understand why. "Under the Volcano" tells the story of an alcoholic British consul, Geoffrey Firmin, drinking himself to death in southern Mexico. Hovering blurrily in his vicinity as he stumbles from bar to bar - the book evokes drunkenness better than anything I've ever read - are a half-brother and an ex-wife who may or may not be betraying him. Firmin is an inveterate liar and a hopeless case, and his exploits might be too depressing to bear if Lowry didn't describe them so gorgeously. The book is dense with scenes that would be miserable to live through - Firmin's lonely drunken ride on a Ferris wheel comes to mind - but that are pure pleasure to read.
Arno Strine, the narrator of Nicholson Baker's "The Fermata," is someone you might report to the police if you encountered him on the street. Since he was a child, Strine has had the mysterious ability to pause time at will. You might imagine that he'd use this power to stop crimes or to learn French, but Strine, who's at least self-aware enough to lament his lack of virtue, is much more interested in undressing and caressing female strangers. You'll cringe, but you won't stop reading.
These books may leave you craving a confessional, or at least craving the polite prose of P.G. Wodehouse, but they may also leave you thinking about just how different our demands when it comes to reality and art. Disaster, depravity, disgrace - ah, yes, just a few more minutes and then you'll put down the book. Back to planning your dinner party, which, with any luck, will resemble fiction hardly at all.
SIEGEL: That's Ben Dolnick for our series Three Books in which authors tell us about books they love. Dolnick is the author of "You Know Who You Are," and you can find more details about his reading recommendations, along with picks from a long list of other writers, on the Summer Books page of our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.