Calendar: The Great Washington Novel Reading List
There is the Great American Novel, and there is the Great Washington Novel.
Washington’s place in the literary fiction canon sometimes gets overshadowed by the heavyweight nonfiction accounts that have come to define the city and its politics.
Nonfiction works such as “All the President’s Men” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson and, more recently, Robert Draper’s “Do Not Ask What Good We Do” and Mark Leibovich’s “This Town” are must-reads that inform and help to form the experiences of those in and around the nation’s capital.
Novels, though, tell the stories of Washington in a way that can sometimes be truer than biography or journalistic accounts. Their narratives also signal that history has a way of coming around again, even if the cast of characters changes regularly in D.C., and that fate sometimes has a great sense of humor.
The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a start for someone looking to pick up a good read during this August recess.
“Watergate” by Thomas Mallon — Mallon tells the story of one of Washington’s most exhaustively covered scandals as a tragic, dark comedy, recounting the early 1970s in Washington as a compromised, lucid platform for palace intrigue and human failings. A finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and a mainstay of top 10 lists for 2012.
“Democracy: An American Novel” by Henry Adams — Adams published this novel anonymously in 1880. He had to. It was scathing satire for the day, telling the story of Washington power brokers whose grasp for influence made people such as the president of the United States somewhat of an afterthought. Few people were as plugged-in to Washington’s Gilded Age scene as Adams, and it shows.
“Echo House” by Ward Just — Just tells the story of the American 20th century through the lives of three generations of the Behl family and their ascent and descent in the political world. From public service to military service, from campaigns to lobbying, the novel traces a decline and fall that is uniquely American and uniquely Washington.
“The Columnist” by Jeffrey Frank — Frank’s acid-tipped, black comedy tale of Washington political columnist Brandon Sladder is a priceless takedown of the self-important, semi-informed and sometimes dangerous Beltway media creature who speaks less than truth to power. As close as any American author has come to Evelyn Waugh’s immortal “Scoop.”
“The Turnaround” by George Pelecanos — Pelecanos tells a story of decadeslong sweep, encompassing some of Washington’s most difficult years with a tale rooted in what he does best: a neighborhood crime. In this case, it’s a crime that casts a shadow over an entire city and its political and demographic changes.