5. Newland Archer. The Age of Innocence.
The climax of this novel at the cannibal feast of the New York elite, the first time I read it, literally made me sick to my stomach. I can remember exactly where I was when I discovered the painful truth that the Blue Book Mafia of upper crust turn-of-the-century New York was every bit as ruthless as the real Mafia. Martin Scorsese was the right director to film this brutally emotional book; it is Raging Bull outside the ring and all dressed up in fancy clothes. What you think is going to happen, what you have been prepared for in countless novels and movies, does not happen. Newland Archer is admirable for many reasons; he is both of and apart from the detestable high class characters that run his world. Newland Archer is a fascinating character because he is so American. He plays by the rules even when the rules are stacked against him.
4. Inigo Montoya. The Princess Bride
Doubtlessly a surprise entry for many. From the time I first The Princess Bride to the first time I read the book that contains my number one choice, Inigo Montoya was my favorite character in American fiction. His impassioned story of vengeance against the man who killed his father, Domingo Montoya, is the heart of the novel. Take Inigo away and The Princess Bride loses much. Anyone who has ever had the desire to serve a dish cold to another can relate to Inigo’s story. And the fact that it doesn’t go quite the way he has spent his live envisioning it is just another of the novel’s contributions to its overriding theme (a theme painfully missing from the film adaptation): Life isn’t fair.
3. Ahab. Moby Dick
There are two ways to enjoy Herman Melville’s masterpiece. One is to read every single word so that you can synthesize the history of whaling into the narrative. The other is to skip over every other chapter and just enjoy a rollicking great story. Either way you can’t help but put down Moby Dick and marvel in the breathtaking creation that is Captain Ahab. He is, certainly much as the white whale itself, a character onto which an endless litany of symbolic parallels can be written. I wrote a long college paper, which I later published here, that compares George W. Bush’s monomaniacal pursuit of Saddam Hussein to Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick. Ahab has been declared insane by some, but he is not. Ahab is one of the finest portraits of the American Citizen. His actions are insane only as long as he isn’t making money for the ownership class that employ him to bring them oil.
2. Elphaba. Wicked
I don’t know about you, but when a character takes unexpected twists and turns and winds up in a quite different place by the end from where she started, I’ve got more admiration. Writers are taught to make characters rounded by making them do things that defy reason, and to shade them with the psychological shadows of ambiguity. For this reason, Elphaba is leagues more interesting than that whiner Holden Caulfield or that utter cipher Jay Gatsby. Elphaba has the ability to reach into your soul and make you root for her even when she’s acting incredibly petty. Her college career commences with the portrait of a shy, but confident young woman and ends with a radicalized Elphaba intent on changing the world that is threatened by oppression. We could use a lot more Elphabas on college campuses these days than Holden Caulfields.
1. Ignatius J. Reilly. A Confederacy of Dunces
Ignatius is larger than life, both literally and figuratively. I’ve read this incredible novel four times since the mid-80s and every single time I still laugh out. Ignatius manages to somehow be both detestable and admirable, often at the same time. His one-man revolt against modernity and the corruption of 20th century life make the hypocritical pandering against the same by the likes of conservative politicians seem all the more hollow. When folks like Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay make Ignatius-like speeches against the corruption they are at the same time engaging in, returning to the real thing makes you appreciate the fundamental decency of Ignatius J. Reilly. One thing is certain; nobody who reads A Confederacy of Dunces ever gets Ignatius completely out of their heads.