Some books have a subject so timeless as to be almost mythic — it's as though these stories are reinvented each time a new book appears, since the subject is right at the heart of what it means to be human. Coming of age books, if they are any good, have this mythic quality. Here are three that are at the top of the scale.
Maxwell was famous as a fiction editor of the New Yorker, but he was also one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. So Long, See You Tomorrow shows how a small-town murder affects 2 boys in their early teens: the narrator and his friend Cletus, the son of the murdered man. The murder, set in the Midwest in the early part of the century, is perfectly explored as the result of a passionate, compelling affair between the wife of a farmer and her neighbor. But the real drama, the heartbreaking quality of this book, is the lifelong attempt by the narrator to come to terms with his desire to offer solace to Cletus and his sense that he was unable to do so.
This devotion to understanding what could and could not be done is an exquisite portrayal of what decency is, one that shows how difficult it is to be moral in an imperfect and violent world. And it has, at the end, a scene that is at once as simple as a haiku and as hard-hitting as any I have read: after years of brooding, the narrator, who feels he hasn't given comfort to Cletus, finds himself crying (without reason, he thinks) on the streets of New York — which Maxwell calls one of the few cities in the world where you can cry on the street and not be noticed. This catharsis, while a mystery to the narrator, is perfectly clear to the reader. This is what all great novels do: They convey that ache that can never be summed up in a life, and make it available to the reader.
Bohumil Hrabal's tragic-comic account of a first sexual encounter gone wrong is a triumph of tone and humor — even in translation from the Czech. This haunting book is set in the period when the Nazis were occupying Czechoslovakia. A young man, Miloš Hrma, bumbles his first chance to sleep with a young woman and then attempts suicide. After recovering, Miloš returns to work as a clerk trainee for the railroad. The aftermath is a send up of bureaucratic nuttiness, complete with the humorous use of official stamps in a sexual game. Ultimately, the young Miloš is resurrected as a sexual creature and as a man who resists the Nazis. In a tone at once beautiful, funny and reaching into the depths of the heart, Hrabal creates a perfect rendering of the tragedy of war, the comedy of growing up and how the two can combine to break your heart. The fullness of being a grown-up, sexually and otherwise, is shown in all its complexity — and further complicated by the author's instinct for humor that, while very funny, is charged with matters of life and death.
This novel, by Man Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, is oddly erotic, frank and wise. It's the story of a middle-aged actor, Alexander Cleave, and his long term attempt to come to terms with his affair, when he was 15, with the mother of his best friend. The obvious compulsion to understand this experience could be merely salacious, but Banville touches on matters so deep as to be ineffable — for instance, what makes a single detail compelling, in a way that is beyond understanding, for the rest of a life? Cleave spends his life trying to come to terms with such haunting details and how his interior, emotional life, and particularly the erotic aspect of it, was formed in this sultry, frank, overwhelming experience. The reader is left with the unavoidable recognition of how complicated the loss of innocence and the beginning of sexual pleasure can be. The novel is also about untrustworthy memory, just as it is about the innocent nature of perception and how it can be so wrong about important things. It's a compelling, haunting illumination of an odd contradiction: Yes, this is the way we grow up, but if an experience is strong enough, one never really does becomes completely adult ... at least privately.
What does it mean to grow up? And why are adults so fascinated by this transition from the innocent to the knowledgeable?
It seems to me that great coming-of-age books allow us to look back at the time in our lives when we discover, almost always the hard way, that some things shouldn't be done — and if they are, they come at an astronomical price. This passage from innocence to knowledge, while sometimes painful, is often so exciting as to be unforgettable. What wouldn't we give to return to that transition, if only for a few imaginary hours?
Craig Nova's most recent novel, The Informer, was named a New Yorker Best Book of 2012. His new novel, All the Dead Yale Men, is out now in trade paperback.