Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker. His latest book is Please Step Back.
1969 was a big year in America: It was the time of Woodstock, the Manson Family and The Brady Bunch premiere on TV. If you want a vibrant microcosm of 20th century America, this is the year.
Literature was energized as well: Philip Roth's taboo-shattering Portnoy's Complaint was published, Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer for Armies of the Night, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five hit the bookshelves. But these are only the most famous. Let's poke around a little and see what other titles we can find from that auspicious year.
'The Spook Who Sat by the Door'
The Spook Who Sat By the Door by Sam Greenlee, paperback, 248 pages
When you talk about 1969, you're talking about politics, and probably about race. Both themes are central to The Spook Who Sat By the Door by Sam Greenlee.
In this elegantly written novel, the CIA decides to get with the changing times by recruiting more African-Americans — even though it has little for them to do other than sit in the office and kill time. Disillusioned and bored, one spy leaves his job and begins to apply his new skills to inner-city revolutionaries. He assembles a team of secret agents and freedom fighters to take down the government. From the title on down, it's a provocative challenge to American white power.
'Naked Came the Stranger'
Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe, paperback, 255 pages
Equally provocative but less gritty, Naked Came the Stranger was written in response to best-selling authors like Jackie Collins. Newspaper columnist Mike McGrady rounded up his writer friends and set out to create an intentionally terrible sex-crazed potboiler, filled with an implausible plot and the purplest prose imaginable. At one point, a woman's breasts, freed from her brassiere, are described as "pennants in the wind of lust." Some chapters even had to be reworked because they were too well-written. McGrady made up a fake author, Penelope Ashe, and used a picture of his sister-in-law for the jacket photo. The book, which includes chapters by more than two dozen authors, remains a cult classic.
'Ada, or Ardor'
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov, paperback, 624 pages
Sex is also at the center of Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor, which has remained obscure in part because it's not Lolita — and in part because it's a 700-page, highly philosophical novel about a romantic affair between a brother and a sister. Set mostly in the late 19th century, on the surface Ada seems to have nothing to do with America in 1969. But in other ways, it's very much a book of its time: chaotic, erotic, iconoclastic and full of more ideas than it can handle. And the prose is beautiful.
These three books not only belong to 1969 but also illuminate it for us, 40 years later, in all its maddening, fascinating, rewarding glory.
"Three Books ..." is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.