Friday Reads: McTeague: a story of San Francisco by Frank Norris
“Friday Reads” is a weekly blog written by reference librarian Faith Lee about great books, magazines, and the occasional reference work. Blogs may be about new titles added to the library, selections from the Staff Picks shelf or about something she recently read. Admittedly, there is a definite slant toward nonfiction, because, well, she’s a reference librarian and likes to learn new things. Guest bloggers take a turn sometimes too. No matter the source, good reads are featured here.
Way back when, before I was a librarian, when I lived in San Francisco, I read the novel, McTeague: a story of San Francisco by Frank Norris, published in 1902. I just picked it up on a whim at a used book store because it was set in my town in the early 1900s and that was enough to interest me. It was a slim thing with a painting of a slim, disheveled man on the cover. I remember now that once I got to reading it, I was quickly hooked. The characters were full and flawed, the setting so vivid I was there on that same street one hundred years ago, and the plot lead me where I least expected. When asked to name my favorite book, McTeague was it for many years. Now I have read so many great books, I can no longer answer that question.
But, I had forgotten about McTeague in recent years, … until today. Today, I saw on our new nonfiction book shelf 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read by Karl Bridges. I scanned the table of contents to quiz myself. How many had I read? Uh-oh, how many had I even heard of?! Please let me remind you here, I read a lot more nonfiction than fiction. But when I saw McTeague on the list, I was thrilled. It is a great American novel. No doubt about it. And if you haven’t read it, Karl Bridges and I recommend that you do. Bridges describes Norris’ novel as being similar to Émile Zola’s realistic tone and style, but “distinctive in its American voice”. Here’s his synopsis from the book:
“McTeague is a dentist of questionable background operating a small practice in San Francisco. He has friends, a reasonable number of patients satisfied with his work, and generally, good prospects in the world. He seems to prosper, both in his practice and in his marriage to the attractive Trina, who brings a reasonable dowry to the marriage. As time goes on, however, the marriage and the practice collapse, victim to McTeague’s increasing alcoholism and lack of attention to his marriage, which reveal the horrible character flaws that the has been hiding. Ultimately, his increasing desperation leads him to murder and to his pursuit by a relentless adversary across California and into the high Sierras, where events come to a thrilling and surprising conclusion.”
McTeague is one novel in the Library of America anthology, Novels and Essays by Frank Norris that I just put on the Staff Picks shelf. Look carefully, it is that plain little clothbound book that resembles a red brick. You can find “100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably ) Never Read” by Karl Bridges on the new nonfiction shelf with the call number 028.9 BRI. Take a look and see how many novels you’ve read.