3 Antagonizing Protagonists You'll Love To Hate

This businessman might look particularly smug, but if you met him within the pages of a book, you might just grow to like him. i i

This businessman might look particularly smug, but if you met him within the pages of a book, you might just grow to like him. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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This businessman might look particularly smug, but if you met him within the pages of a book, you might just grow to like him.

This businessman might look particularly smug, but if you met him within the pages of a book, you might just grow to like him.

iStockphoto.com

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.

Sabbath's Theater

Sabbath's Theater

by Philip Roth

Paperback, 451 pages, Random House Inc, $16, published August 1 1996 | purchase

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Philip Roth has made a cottage industry of unlikable characters, but compared with 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 any goodness in him at all. But Roth's fictional machinery has never run at such an astonishing clip. The book's a ferocious delight.

Under The Volcano

by Malcolm Lowry

Paperback, 400 pages, Gardners Books, $17.25, published February 3 2000 | purchase

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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. The book is dense with scenes (Firmin's lonely, drunken ride on a ferris wheel comes to mind) that would be miserable to live through, but are pure pleasure to read about.

The Fermata

by Nicholson Baker

Paperback, , Random House Inc, $15, published January 1 1995 | purchase

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The Fermata
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Arno Strine, the narrator of Nicholson Baker's The Fermata, is someone you might report to the police, if you happened to see 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 are for life 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.

Ben Dolnick is the author of You Know Who You Are and Zoology. His work has also appeared in The New York Times and at FiveChapters.com..

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.

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