From detective novels to self-help manuals, everything a man needs to know about life can be found between the covers of a good book...
Meet Rob. He’s the manager of a London record shop in which he and his sad friends make top-five lists, talk about mix tapes and obsess over albums by dead blues musicians. Then Rob decides to get in touch with five of his ex-girlfriends to find out where it all went wrong. Great idea! We all know a guy like Rob: he looks back at us from the mirror every morning.
Key line: “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?”
Read this as a teenager and you’ll cry with laughter. Repeat as a man and the tears may not be ones of joy.
Key line: “8.45am. My mother is in the hospital grounds smoking a cigarette. She is looking old and haggard. All the debauchery is catching up with her.”
Life is full of ‘common sense’. In Arden’s brilliant self-help book, we’re urged to make decisions that go against everything we think is true. Great cover design, too.
Key line: “When things go wrong it’s tempting to shift the blame. Don’t. Accept responsibility. People will appreciate it, and you will find out what you’re capable of.”
New York banker Sherman McCoy has it all – the money, the women, the hair – until a car crash leads to a catastrophic downfall. This book acts as a vivid reminder that we’re all one mistake away from ruin. Cheers!
Key line: “A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.”
After being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, Charrière faces 14 years under the cruellest of prison regimes, with torture and violence a daily occurrence. Needless to say, it’s ace when he escapes.
Key line: “I’d been in prison 11 years. I was 35. I’d spent the best years of my life either in a cell or in a black hole.”
Like a drink? So much that the walls talk to you and your son acts as a conduit between you and the dead? Modern gothic horror that will keep you up all night.
Key line: “He looked to her like an absurd 20th-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerised by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way.”
At 128 pages, Train Dreams is small enough to polish off over a weekend, but profound enough to keep you thinking about the tale of a logger inhabiting the burned-out ruins of his former home until at least the following Wednesday.
Key line: “The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in.”
You’d think that a story centred around death, disappointment and 4am cocaine comedowns might be depressing, but McInerney’s intensely morbid sense of humour cements this as one of the funniest novels you’ll ever read. A life lesson for the ambitious.
Key line: “Your heartbreak is just another version of the same old story.”
Forget those tedious English classes; it’s time to give Hemingway’s epic about the Spanish Civil War another go. Focusing on a group of rebels waiting for the right moment to strike, the novel is a masterclass in tension. Remember to have a strong drink handy
for the final battle.
Key line: “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.”
It’s May 1914 and tweed-wearing Richard Hannay has just been fingered for the murder of an American spy. This sets in motion a chase across southern Scotland with all sorts of dastardly villains in pursuit. You’ll read it in an afternoon.
Key line: “It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”
In the world of manly books, Money is the grandaddy against which all others are measured. If you’re not familiar with the jetsetting series of embarrassments that forms film director John Self’s life, now’s the time to get acquainted.
Key line: “Money doesn’t mind if we say it’s evil, it goes from strength to strength. It’s a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy.”
Orwell’s semi-autobiographical account of being a penniless writer transports us to the unseen corners of ’30s London and Paris. The story follows Orwell as he begins to economise by cutting out wine and cigarettes, and then, inevitably, food. These dark, eerie accounts present a vivid portrait of a life on the edge. And it’s mostly miserable there.
Key line: “Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry.”
Brief snatches of dialogue. A detective who speaks in short sentences. More metaphors than a lorryload of poetry books. The Big Sleep is the definitive detective novel, featuring drinking, blackmail and murder in equal measure. Plus, in Philip Marlowe, it boasts one of literature’s greatest lawmen.
Key line: “I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.”
Marilyn Monroe. JFK. FBI. Cuba. Castro. Death. And death again in this bloody saga through the dark days of ’50s/’60s America.
Key line: “The geek screamed. Street noise levelled out the sound. Pete shoved a sandwich in his mouth to muzzle him. His dope stash was in the freezer next to the ice cream.”
It’s 18th-century France and Paris is awash with odours (so what’s new?). Into this stew is born Grenouille, a child with a sharp sense of smell who embarks on a murderous crusade to make the perfect scent. You’ll never think about smell in the same way.
Key line: “Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will.”
Possibly the most ambitious masturbator in fiction, Kennedy Marr is a successful author struggling with taxes, an estranged daughter and a worrying lump on his penis. A tale of one man’s attempt to blunder, drink and insult his way back to the top.
Key line: “The human body: why did its – frankly – limited repertoire of moves manage to fascinate him so endlessly?”
This book follows the journey of Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead III and his quest for identity. Set between the ’30s and ’60s, but jumping back to the 19th century, Milkman travels from his home state of Michigan to Pennsylvania and eventually Virginia where he comes to terms with his slave roots and age-old injustice.
Key line: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
Set in a nasty futuristic Britain, nutty teenager Alex heads up a gang who speak in slang, drink milk laced with drugs and wander the streets killing, raping and stealing.
Key line: “The next morning I woke up at oh eight oh oh hours, my brothers, and as I still felt shagged and fagged and fashed and bashed and my glazzies were stuck together real horrorshow with sleepglue, I thought I would not go to school.”
A story about a murderer who not only kills without remorse, but feels nothing when he is sentenced to death. You know that guy in your local who drinks strong lager without talking to a soul all night? Yeah. It’s him.
Key line: “I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.”
WWII bombardier Yossarian is continuously trying to get out of fighting. But he’s trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade: a man is insane if he continues to fly combat missions but a request to be excused proves he’s sane and so fit to fly.
Key line: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three.”
A novel about jazz, murder, alcohol and ultimately all the trouble that thing in between your legs can and will get you into. You can imagine what that entails.
Key line: “A fire had begun to spread in me. It was burning now in my stomach and my lungs were dry as old leaves, my heart had a herded pressure which gave promise to explode.”
Boy is a nostalgic look back at the times when, as a child, Roald Dahl stuck a dead mouse in the gobstopper jar at the sweetshop and filled his sister’s fiancé’s pipe with goat droppings. More daring than most of us will manage in an entire life.
Key line: “We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.”
Bret Easton Ellis
How can a book about a murderous psychopath also be hilarious? Because – aside from the horrible killing stuff – ludicrous Wall Street banker Patrick Bateman is also one of the most quotable characters in the world of literature. Still, best not let your mum pick it up, eh?
Key line: “‘Hello, Owen,’ I say, admiring the way he’s styled and slicked back his hair, with a part so even and sharp it… devastates me and I make a mental note to ask him where he purchased his hair-care products.”
While the film’s a cult classic – we’ve all seen that poster – this meandering ride through Edinburgh’s druggy underworld of the ’80s is funnier, wider in scope and even more brutal. It’s also an excellent lesson on why the injection of heroin is, on reflection, unwise.
Key line: “People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid.”
Bukowski wrote the blueprint for funny, intelligent novels on male angst. This, his first, was published when the author was 50 and details his attempts to swap a career in menial postal work for a life of writing, drinking and gambling. Sounds great.
Key line: “It takes a wise man to make it without working.”
What happens after a nuclear war when a group of boys find themselves stranded on a tropical island? Clue: they separate into factions and start killing each other. Your sister’s got The Hunger Games; this is for you.
Key line: “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything.”
Ignore the Colin Farrell film and head straight for Fante’s novel about a young, down-and-out writer leaving home to scrape by in LA’s tough Bunker Hill district. From surviving on oranges to pursuing volatile Latina waitresses, this is a story every bit as romantic as flying the coop was supposed to be.
Key line: “Get out and learn about life, walk the streets. That’s your trouble: your ignorance of life.”
After being captured by aliens, soldier Billy Pilgrim recalls random moments of his life on Earth including his time as a POW. This classic will change the way you think about life, time and just about everything else.
Key line: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”
This simple tale follows a country lad who leaves home and boards a ship to Spain on the basis he knows the Spanish for “I’d like a glass of water.”
Key line: “I felt the unease of arriving at night in an unknown city – that faint sour panic which seems to cling to a place until one has found oneself a bed.”
There are only so many times you can watch Apocalypse Now, so why not delve into some outstanding Vietnam war fiction instead? Veteran infantry soldier Tim O’Brien’s short story collection would be a good place to start. Expect camaraderie, humour and guts hanging from trees.
Key line: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
The original self-help book (it was written in 1936) How To Win Friends… still has plenty of lessons for getting on in life. More than anything it shows how being nice pays dividends no matter what your career.
Three tips for now:
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you
can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
“Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance and arouses resentment.”
“If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence.”
_ Additional words: Tom Ward, Elizabeth Atkin, Nick Pope and Mia Bleach _
_ Photography: James Cheadle _