I teach at a Southern university, where I want my students to value books. I tell them that books can be milestones in your life. They certainly have been in mine. I can chart significant changes or developments in my life by remembering books I read at the time. I decided to become a writer when I was fourteen years old and devouring Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories and Jack London’s tales of adventure, above all, The Sea Wolf with its Nietzschean antagonist Wolf Larsen.
Within a few years, I had my first encounter with Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and his novel Crime and Punishment, which I considered the best book I’d ever read until I discovered The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky devoured the newspapers of his day, and he loved to read and ultimately write about crime. As fascinating as the starving, murderous student Raskolnikov is in Crime and Punishment, he pales in comparison to the beastly father and his four very different sons in The Brothers Karamazov. Both books are essentially crime novels but then so much more! No writer ever probed the human soul more deeply than Dostoevsky.
When I was in college, I got to meet the great writer Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. A friend rented a room from Ms. Smith in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and we ate dinner with her and spent the night at her home. She was very gracious. It was years before I got around to reading her novel, but it immediately went to the top of my list. Little Francie became a part of my life, and her alcoholic father, too. Smith created a world for me, and that’s what the best writers do.
In the late 1980s I chanced upon another novel that would have a major effect on my approach to writing. I don’t even remember much of the plot of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, but I do remember being bowled over by his language—crisp and lean, each word no nonsense and power-packed, no extra baggage here, funny at times with a sardonic grin, worldly wise, with a sense that the man who wrote these words had been down these streets. From Chandler I went to Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Cornell Woolrich, W. R. Burnett, and Jim Thompson. It was among these writers that I found my kindred spirits.
I’ll just mention two other books although I could mention more. When my first wife died after a long illness in 1994, I went through a period where I wrestled with the big questions of life. One book I read at the time—read and re-read—left a profound impression. It was Sholem Asch’s novel Salvation. It’s the story of Yechiel, the “Psalm Jew” in the lost world of the Eastern European shtetl. I found an old used copy of the book by accident. The previous owner’s inscription on the first page said it all: “I love everybody.”
Finally I’ll slip over into the world of nonfiction. I’m a veteran journalist as well as writer of fiction, and I’ve got a whole different list of writers and books that have been important to me. A. J. Liebling, Ernie Pyle, Dorothy Day are among them. However, the book that put me on a different course to understanding this crazy country and its politics was historian T. Harry Williams’ biography Huey Long. It’s about the man who campaigned on making “every man a king” and nearly became one himself before an assassin’s bullet stopped him. The story of Huey Long is one of extremes, but nowhere did I get a better education into the yin and yang of American politics, the conflicting interests, the hubris, the plight of regular working folks, the deck that’s stacked against them, and the heroes and villains who claim to represent them.
So this is my list. It’s not a fixed list. I may find a book tomorrow that topples one of these out of my top five. That’s the beauty of reading. You never know what gem you’ll discover, and how that gem may signal a whole new chapter in life.
Title: Casey’s Last Chance
Author: Joseph B. Atkins
Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book:
Tough, gritty, and atmospheric, Casey’s Last Chance unfolds against the backdrop of a treacherous, race-torn 1960s South that’s ready to explode with civil rights workers challenging an organized resistance itching for combat. The central character, Casey Eubanks, is a small-time North Carolina hustler on the run after an argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony steers him to a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who is stirring up trouble at one of Duren’s mills. Things go wrong, and Casey’s on the run again, this time from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Enter Martin Wolfe, a freelance reporter investigating Duren’s operation. He tries to solicit Casey to help him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher bring Duren down. Casey dumps Wolfe, steals his car, and returns home to Orella. A bloody shootout with a Duren goon, however, convinces Casey to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. The three take off back across the South to execute a plan to destroy Duren. Everything works until the explosive end…but will anyone emerge unscathed?