Country music, at its rootsy roots, tells stories of agony and ecstasy, soaring highs and mighty powerful lows, heartache and hard living. Sometimes a good book does exactly the same. I’m not talking about romance novels with hunky cowboys and tractors, or even Louis L’Amour. There are loads of less obvious books that fit the mold of an old-fashioned country and western saga, even ones set in the big city—and even ones that don’t include references to mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk. Here are just five that, if set to song, could become country classics:
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This is the done-me-wrong ballad to outdo all others. There’s enough lying and cheating and no-good spouses here to make the steel guitars cry. Gone Girl is essentially a parfait of treachery, in which no character is what you’d call likable. Not since Raskolnikov have I been so sure that nothing is going to end well for a character than when Nick Dunne, husband of the year over here, sizes up the skull of his not-quite-what-she-seems wife, Amy. A little bit pulp, a whole lot thriller, and heaps of heartache. You’re going to want to get drunk when you’re finished, and maybe listen to some Hank Williams.
If you’d just been hit by a train/at least I’d be spared the pain/of living with you and your lie/for the rest of our terrible lives
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
Faulkner’s roundtable of misery hits all the same sour notes as the best singers to grace the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. In this saddest of road-trip stories, the Bundren family embarks on an odyssey to bury matriarch Addie. It’s darkly comic, with the trauma of his mother’s death confusing young Vardaman into uttering one of the book’s most memorable lines: “My mother is a fish.” It’s a defeatist kind of humor—there is irony in the bleakness—in the same vein as all of Nashville’s deprecating barroom bawls (“And as the door behind you closes, the only thing I know to say, it’s been a good year for the roses.”) You could try your hand at tackling Absalom, Absalom!, but wouldn’t you ruther have some bananas with the Bundrens?
Mama died, and Anse can’t stand it/Mama died, we think she planned it/Mama died, she ain’t here no more/Mama died, and Cash is a Jesus metaphor
The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain
Based on the romance and marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, there’s no way this sordid tale could end up as anything but ache, passion, booze, and more and bigger ache. It may be set in Paris, but this window into the disintegration of a burning love is just a jukebox shy of a honky-tonk tearjerker straight out the mouth of Tammy Wynette.
Oh, it ain’t always glamourous to be the first wife/Especially when the man is Hemingway/He drinks all night and day/What is happiness anyway?/Who’s that woman in my bed—is this my life?
No Way to Treat a First Lady, by Christopher Buckley
It’s satire, yes, but in between the earnestness (and sometimes schmaltziness), country music’s got a fine tradition of jest (go ye and Google Tompall Glaser). Buckley’s riotous story of a first lady on trial for maybe, sort of killing the (cheatin’, no good) president of the United States hits some of the main country and western themes: philandering husbands, repressed lust, domestic spats (here with a spittoon, no less), over-the-top lyricism, and a certain distaste for Washington politics and big-city living. Hell hath no fury like a FLOTUS scorned.
He done her wrong, she did him in/It won’t be long till she’s in the pen/But now the other woman’s got something to say/For his pleasure, the president will pay/With a long sleep, good riddance, creep, he’s dead
Dear John, by Nicholas Sparks
Sparks is the undisputed king of weepy love stories, and Dear John is basically Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (it lacks the bombast of Whitney’s). Love and loss await our perfectly Southern star-crossed protagonists, John and Savannah, with plot point upon plot point designed to suck the tears right out of your ducts (it’s Sparks’ thing). The book’s the equivalent of your dog running off the day after your wife left you on the outbound train with your drunkard best friend.
Just a good old boy and pretty little lady/Fell in love in two weeks, oh baby/They write each other letters all the time/But life just sucks and gets in the way/They both know that he can’t stay/In the end, we are all just dust and we die
What’s your favorite country-epic read?