Five Best Stories About Memorable Celebrations

From a Wall Street Journal column headlined “Five Best: Stories of Memorable Celebrations”:

Selected by Dana Brown, the author, most recently, of ‘Dilettante: True Tales of Excess, Triumph, and Disaster.’

Appointment in Samarra
By John O’Hara (1934)

1. This deliciously dark novel takes place in a 1930s Pennsylvania town during the Christmas holidays. Told from multiple perspectives, what begins as a detailed social exposition about small-town America takes a sharp turn when the focus shifts to Julian English. Julian seems to have everything—beautiful wife, successful business, high social standing—and proceeds to lose it all over the course of 72 hours due to three drunken, self-destructive episodes.

The first occurs during Christmas Eve dinner at the country club, when he throws a drink in the face of a wealthy businessman and town pillar who happens to be an important investor in Julian’s automobile dealership. It’s the beginning of a downward spiral that finds Julian quickly tumbling down the town’s social ladder until he has lost everything. “You pull the pin out of a hand grenade, and in a few seconds it explodes and men in a small area get killed and wounded.”

Some Hope
By Edward St. Aubyn (1994)

2. Set in 1991, the third novel in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series finds our hero, clean and sober, attending a big society birthday party among a group of “hard dull people who appeared quite sophisticated but were in fact as ignorant as swans.” Like Wilde and Waugh, Mr. St. Aubyn writes with searing wit and biting analysis about the English aristocracy. The book leaves readers with some hope that a newly self-aware Patrick will be cutting the emotional ties that bind him to the class he was born into and finding some version of his life where he can achieve happiness and contentment. You’ll have to read the fourth and fifth books in the series to see if he does.

The Bonfire of the Vanities
By Tom Wolfe (1987)

3. This is the story of New York City in the 1980s, fictionalized thinly. It’s one of the best contemporary satires, picking at the flesh of society in the same way Dickens did some 100 years earlier: a tale about wealth, class, race, ambition and greed centered around a WASPy bond trader and “Master of the Universe”—the children’s cartoon and its main character, He-Man, are used as a metaphor throughout. (Sherman McCoy, the bond trader and proto-Finance Bro, hears the character’s rallying cry, “I have the power!” in his head as he pulls the levers of capitalism.)

I grew up in New York in the 1980s, and this book explained what I’d witnessed during my formative years, arriving at the right age for me to understand. It introduced me to the power of the novel as anthropological document and societal parable. In the middle of the book is a long, immaculately detailed description of a high-end dinner party that is as hilarious as it is brutal and exacting. How many times have I found myself sitting at a similarly dreadful affair, thinking back to Wolfe’s descriptions and derisive metaphors to get me through the absurdity of it all?

The Sun Also Rises

By Ernest Hemingway (1926)

4. Ernest Hemingway’s first novel was the beginning of the mythology that would build up around him and live on almost a century later. On its surface, it’s a tortured love story between Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The two are expats living in Paris, headed to Pamplona, Spain, with a ragtag group of other expats for the Festival of San Fermín—the running of the bulls.

Amid all the decadence and hedonism exhibited by this group, their carefree expat life is at first glance romantic. That moment in Pamplona, when the fiesta “explodes,” has hooked so many of us on the entwined fantasy of travel, freedom and nonconformity. But an undercurrent of hopelessness and sadness builds, ending with the realization that “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” This is a universal story of the insecurity of youth, and that dawning, or fear, that nothing you do will amount to anything.

Goodbye, Columbus
By Philip Roth (1959)

5. This Boy Meets Girl story, about a summer fling between two young Jewish people in their early 20s in 1950s New Jersey, explores issues of class and Jewish assimilation, race, nostalgia and, ultimately, the passage of time. Neil and Brenda’s relationship buckles under the weight of their different economic backgrounds. The underlying tension of this novella’s central relationship is the inevitability of its end.

It’s at Brenda’s brother’s wedding, a centerpiece that Philip Roth slowly builds up to, that Neil begins to see that inevitability. “What was it inside me,” he later wonders, “that had turned pursuit and clutching into love and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing—who knows—into winning? I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there, I knew I couldn’t any longer.”

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