Uptight Is All Right: 3 Books For Finicky Folks

An uptight man straightens his bow tie. i i
iStockphoto.com
An uptight man straightens his bow tie.
iStockphoto.com

The air has turned cooler, the flip-flops are in the back of the closet, the sand is shaken out of the suitcases — fall has arrived.

This season marks the return of control. So now is the perfect time to read fiction about some very orderly characters. The men who are the protagonists of these three marvelous novels are not summer kind of men. They are meditative and isolated, perhaps a little too controlled, sometimes a little too unwilling to take responsibility for their own behavior.

It may not sound very enriching to spend your time with men who keep (or try to keep) everything in check and live almost entirely in their heads. But it is, at least with these guys.

Stoner

by John Edward Williams

Paperback, 278 pages, Random House Inc, $14.95, published June 20 2006 | purchase

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This book is not about a man who smokes too much marijuana. It's about William Stoner, who grows up on a hardscrabble Midwestern farm and whose life is transformed when he discovers literature at the University of Missouri. While he originally intends to study agronomy, Stoner becomes a professor of English. It's downhill after that — a miserable marriage, an alienated daughter, an unspectacular academic career. He has fleeting periods of contentment and love, but he never seizes them before they slip away. Williams doesn't offer easy answers to the mystery of Stoner's stoic, somewhat passive temperament. And yet, once you sink into his story, a kind of joy takes over as you travel through this beautifully observed life. It's a quiet novel but a very powerful one — a testament to the magic that can happen when a writer pays careful attention to the inner lives of his characters.

The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Paperback, 245 pages, Random House Inc, $15, published October 1 1993 | purchase

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Stevens is a perfect English butler living in post-World War II England and struggling with a changing world. Unlike William Stoner, he is not at all interested in the life of the mind. His primary interest is that of perfect service, both to the current American owner of Darlington Hall, Mr. Farraday, and before that to Lord Darlington, who, it is slowly revealed, was something of a Nazi sympathizer. Like William Stoner, Stevens misses his chance for a happier life. Unlike Stoner, who is aware of his predicament but feels powerless to change it, Stevens is not even aware of the ways in which he has deceived himself.

Open City

by Teju Cole

Hardcover, 259 pages, Random House Inc, $25, published February 8 2011 | purchase

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This remarkable first novel is set in post-Sept. 11 New York City. Julius, the protagonist, is a walker and, like William Stoner, a thinker. He walks the streets of New York City, where he is a psychiatry resident, from Washington Heights to the Battery, sharing with the reader a rich, incredibly detailed and wide-ranging inner monologue. Julius is not so much uptight or overcontrolled as he is solitary and almost entirely internal. He encounters others at every turn, but his engagement with them is always a little distant, a little cold. A climactic revelation gives the reader some insight into his distance, but even so, not everything is understood. He remains, essentially, a fascinating mystery, and Teju Cole, the man who created him, is a writer to watch.

Three books, three men, three struggles with what lies beneath. As the leaves fall and we all begin to turn up our collars and lean into the wind, these novels make excellent companions on the road to winter.

Martha Southgate is the author of four novels, most recently The Taste of Salt.

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

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