5. Zoology – Ben Dolnick
Set predominantly in Central Park Zoo, Dolnick’s Zoology is about a college drop out who leaves his small hometown (and girlfriend) behind with dreams of becoming a jazz musician in New York City. However, although Henry leaves with high hopes of finding meaning, love and a career in jazz he instead finds employment in a zoo, a goat and even more confusion.
Zoology, laden with a fair amount of angst and neuroticism, may not find many fans outside of a certain adolescent demographic, but as with any good coming of age tale there are aspects here that most readers will be able to relate to. Unrequited love, hopeless optimism, a search for purpose, all the hallmarks of a growing up story are here and are covered by Dolnick in an understated way through an interesting and fleshed out array of characters and animals.
Chief among these is the goat Newman who is undoubtedly the star of the novel and the most appealing and charming aspect of the novel. Newman the goat wonder provides some of the books most memorable moments and plays a pivotal role in the neurotic Henry’s gradual self discovery – this hairy, smelly creature becomes more of a valuable friend for Henry than any of the flawed and self involved humans he encounters. Part of the reason why Newman is such a great character is because of the tender and affectionate manner in which Dolnick describes him, to the point where I found myself often rooting more for the goat than Henry.
With well written believable characters (both human and otherwise) and an interesting zoo back drop rich in meaning and metaphor, Zoology is an entertaining, witty and highly relatable first novel of growing up in the big apple.
4. Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
Compared to Mitchell’s other works involving complex plots and intertwining narratives, Black Swan Green is a comparatively straightforward and deceptively simple story told in thirteen episodic chapters from the perspective of a stuttering small town British teenager, making this an easier, but no less rewarding read than his other more difficult books.
Charting a time period of just over a year in the life of Jason Taylor, themes such as bullying, friendship, schoolyard status and girls are explored through Jason’s honest and conversational observations that really help the narrative come alive.
One of the opening and most memorable passages of Black Swan Green depicts a game of British Bulldogs – a physical, often borderline violent, game of group tag that I can vividly remember playing in primary school. For someone growing up trying to fit in, be liked or accepted, group games such as this take on an almost profound level of importance and Mitchell conveys this well through Jason’s observations during the game that give a vivid sense of the social dynamics involved for a 13-year-old boy, “Unimportant kids’ coats were put at either end of the lake as goalmouths to reach through and to defend … Runners got captured and turned into Bulldogs for the next pass. I hate that about British Bulldogs. It forces you to be a traitor.” And the fact that this a game of British Bulldogs on ice cleverly adds further to the sense of social and physical peril involved.
Black Swan Green is full of scenes such as this set in an array of familiar adolescent haunts such as the local park, the family dinner table, up trees, down the woods and at the school disco which can’t fail to invoke memories of your own early teenage years. When coupled with a highly likeable hero facing experiences and challenges that are universally identifiable for anyone who has been a teenager it all makes for an extremely good read.
Plus it is the first of two books in my top five set in the 80s – clearly the best decade to grow up in.
3. Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis
The least relatable of my top five for me personally but easily the most disturbing and shocking, Less Than Zero, referred to as ‘The Catcher of the Rye of the MTV generation’ when it was published in 1985, documents the return of an 18 year old student Clay to LA through a series of drug-fueled parties, indifferent sexual encounters and glamorous/seedy nightclubs.
More of a collection of short punchy stories than a novel, the narrative reflects Clay’s increasing alienation from his friends as their lifestyles and choices become ever more hedonistic and questionable. Upon first reading it might leave you feeling as hollow and empty as the LA kids depicted in the book, and whereas the other novels in this list offer more uplifting portrayals of youth, Less Than Zero offers a different angle on the coming of age novel in a powerful and thought-provoking way.
I recently watched Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Bling Ring’ at the cinema and I was struck by how much the privileged, self-obsessed and morally dubious gang reminded me of the characters depicted in Less Than Zero. Besides the obvious similarities of being set in LA amidst decadent partying and excess, both feature a ‘lost generation’ in which the characters seem to have no real connection to each other, showing no concern for their ‘friends’ as they fall off, or express doubts, about their hedonistic, destructive joy ride. Both Elis and Coppola also take the same approach of refusing to either condone or criticise their characters actions and behaviour – it is left to us to draw our own conclusions. In this way both are presented as an honest, unflinching document of a youth culture gone mad, and Less Than Zero in particular manages to captures an air of reality that is pretty powerful stuff.
Whereas Cabon’s novel (see below) is full of hope and life, Less Than Zero is on the surface entirely devoid of feeling – a coming of age cocaine novel that explores the effects of youth that has had too much too young. It is almost thirty years old but the themes explored in Less Than Zero are still as relevant as ever.
2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
I am unashamed to admit – but perhaps I should be -that I bought this book when I was 17 after seeing it feature as the prominent competent of Seth Cohen’s (of OC fame) ‘Starter Pack’. Despite this somewhat dubious course of recommendation (Seth Cohen was something of a cultural guru when I was a teenager) I’m glad that it found its way into my lap as it is a fun, thrilling and heart-wrenching book that I have found myself re-reading again and again.
Brought together in Brooklyn by the circumstances of late 1930s Europe, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay combine their respective talents for art and storytelling to create the Nazi-busting comic superhero ‘The Escapist’. It’s from this point that Kavalier and Clay’s adventures unfold, with both characters facing their own personal challenges whilst simultaneously battling the forces of intolerance and oppression through their comics. Whereas most novels would be happy to cover just one adventure of a lifetime this book has a multitude, all linked by the novels ever-present theme of escape.
There are big themes here, tackled by characters that are still young and finding who they really are. The amazing ‘readability’ of Kavalier & Clay, however, is largely due to the writing prowess of Michael Chabon who is seemingly able to weave passage after passage of gripping narrative at ease keeping you hopelessly hooked throughout the 630 odd pages that will go by in a breeze.
Although the novel is a fair size, it really doesn’t feel like a long read as you are involved with the story from the get go and will find yourself constantly turning the page to find out where the adventure is heading next. And for me, this is exactly what Chabon’s book is, a thrilling page turning adventure story, but also one that speaks of hope and the dizzying potential of youth. Brimming with the stuff of life – love, friendship, war and art, and two fantastically memorable characters who grow up together through some of the most significant times in the 20th century ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay’ is a colossus coming of age epic and a must read.
1. Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
As The Catcher in the Rye arguably inspired the entire ‘coming of age’ genre in fiction, it would be just plain foolish to put any other book at the top of a list like this. Salingers story about a day in the life of a young man’s break down in New York City has become the literary icon of adolescent angst and alienation.
Over 60 years since its publication the book still manages to capture what it is like to be a teenager for generation after generation. This success is largely derived from the markedly relatable and complex protagonist Holden Caulfield, a seemingly timeless anti-hero in a red hunting hat. As he struggles with feelings of disaffection and isolation alone in New York, the reader is provided with insights into human nature that have inspired entire generations of would be writers and equally as many questionable tattoos. But I guess there is no better testament of a books iconic statue than mobs of people being moved enough to get ‘”Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”‘ or ‘”Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row”‘ inked on their skin forever. (A quick google search will demonstrate what I mean!)
Although, when I was growing up it was Houlden’s descriptions and thoughts on women and relationships that resonated with me the most. “If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she’s late? Nobody.”
The Catcher in the Rye is also one of the few modern American classic’s not to be adapted into a film, adding further to its mystique, although Marlon Brando, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DeCaprio have apparently all tried and failed. I may be in the minority, but I think a film adaptation, if done well, would be awesome, potentially opening up this great novel to a whole new generation of readers, in a similar vein to what happened recently with the resurged interest in The Great Gatsby.
The Catcher in the Rye, with its iconic central character and endlessly quotable conversational narrative is, in my opinion, undoubtedly the defining coming of age novel.