Underrated is a relative term when it comes to novels of Manhattan — where dozens of perfectly good books sit on front stoops and The Strand’s remainder tables — because New Yorkers delight in reading about themselves to such an extent that, at times, it can be easier to think of books not set in Manhattan. But it takes a special book to show a new side to the city, one that is neither the crisp, well-traveled white-collar demesnes of Wall Street and Midtown, nor the equally well-tread territory of 1970s CBGBs bohemia. “Underrated,” in this case, can mean a beloved underground classic rescued by a reprint press, a book long-worshipped by the avant-garde but invisible to more casual readers or simply a lesser-known work by a fairly familiar author. With these caveats in mind, these are 10 veritable diamonds in Manhattan’s endless rough.
The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle
William Kotzwinkle has had one of the most interesting careers in contemporary fiction, winner of a World Fantasy Award and a National Magazine Award, the author of dozens of novels like The Bear Went Over the Mountain as well as the novelization of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. But before all of that was 1974’s The Fan Man, in which a hippie recovers from the sixties in a New York apartment surrounded by fans of all sizes, working his way back to the world one hallucination at a time.
Speedboat by Renata Adler
Renata Adler was a staff writer for The New Yorker for four decades and Speedboat is certainly urbane, off-the-cuff and distinguished, as you might expect from such a pedigree. But it is wild too. The wry account of a journalist named Jen Fain as she occupies taxi cabs, brownstones and relationships with an air not so much disaffected as occupying a dream that happens to be real life. Welcomed back into print in 2013, its prose is simply the stuff of legend.
Sylvia by Leonard Michaels
Sylvia, by the great Leonard Michaels, is almost unbearably close-to-life. And for good reason: It is the barely fictionalized memoir of Michaels’ first wife, her illness and eventual suicide. Reissued in 2003, it is a raw nerve that winds its way across a Manhattan made hazy with fantasy and drugs — but the haze is only there for the novel’s characters, because readers can see the husband and wife at its heart clear as day.
Cabot Wright Begins by James Purdy
A novel that scandalized its original audience, the title character of James Purdy’s Cabot Wright Begins is the rapist of almost three hundred women. News of Cabot Wright’s parole attracts a would-be biographer who journeys to New York in search of his subject, only to find himself in Boschian hellscape of unscrupulous publishers, Wall Street goons, television personalities and the sociopathic Wright himself.
City of Night by John Rechy
City of Night is a classic, but it took years for this, the definitive gay American novel of the 1960s, to find wide acceptance. But that’s certainly no fault of the book, which is as much a living document as ever. Times Square is just one of many settings,with the book moving from El Paso to New Orleans, restlessly exploring the world of hustlers, drag queens and other denizens of the night Rechy knew firsthand.
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
Poor Richard Yates, still winding up on “underrated,” despite supplying the name of a Tao Lin novella, an award-winning film of his Revolutionary Road and a mention of The Easter Parade in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. But Yates’ reputation as a one-book writer still dogs The Easter Parade, his true masterpiece with its story of two doomed sisters whose father works for the New York Sun and its famous, unimpeachable opening lines “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.”
The System of Dante’s Hell by LeRoi Jones
As its title indicates, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones’s The System of Dante’s Hell structures the journey of an African American man through racist southern towns, the Newark ghetto, and Manhattan according to the circles of Dante’s Hell, tracking a trip through perdition in the poet and dramatist’s equally nested and circular prose.
By Grand Street Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
The grandiose By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart is a textured, at times lunatic, prose-poem detailing the author’s agonized love affair with a married poet, leading up to her climactic journey to Manhattan to confront her torturer.
Waste by Eugene Marten
Although not explicitly set in Manhattan, the skyscraper that forms the setting of Waste reads as an evocation of the city skyline. We follow a night janitor named Sloper as he works his way through the leavings of other livings beings; Eugene Marten’s prose is spare and evocative, conjuring a world from its garbage.
Johnny One-Eye by Jerome Charyn
The peerless and long-celebrated Jerome Charyn returned to public consciousness with 2008’s Johnny One-Eye which is set in a Manhattan that is seldom represented — the Manhattan of the Revolutionary War. We are introduced to John Stocking, born of a brothel madam and (perhaps) George Washington, who runs amok among historical figures like Benedict Arnold, Alexander Hamilton and General Washington himself.