Copperhead presents us with Jessup, a high-school football player reckoning with the release of his stepfather from prison. Jessup is a jock who capably considers the moral complexities of his situation. He’s not some reductive type, and through Jessup author Alexi Zentner explores vital notions of masculinity.
King of the Mississippi
Okay, so the protagonists of Mike Freedman’s King of the Mississippi—an ex-jock and a former soldier—are kind of assholes, but it’s the manner in which they are presented that lands Freedman’s comic novel on this list. The point of the book is their male vanity, their entitlement, making King of the Mississippi an utterly contemporary work.
The Substitution Order
A lawyer who gets disbarred and a husband who’s separated from his wife, Kevin Moore is the quintessential down-on-his-luck character. But his plucky persistence to get his life back together despite the menacing machinations of the legal world makes Moore a tenderly wrought and believably real person, and he makes the novel as a whole a very worthwhile experience.
Major Alexander Vasin’s investigation into the death of a physicist takes him to Arzamas-16, a top-secret research city in 1960s Russia. What’s so fascinating about Owen Matthews’s thriller is that the KGB of the former USSR is usually portrayed as simplistically villainous, but Vasin is a richly rendered character, someone you trust and hope succeeds. That the novel is also a chilling and exciting tale is also reason to praise it.
In the paranoid, furtive period of the Cold War, John and his friends spend their summer getting into all manner of things: a plan to steal a rare arachnid, encounters with one of the boys’ glamorous aunt, and throwing a huge party. John, like Huck Finn before him, is a generous and warm troublemaker, who despite living in 1959 feels effectively contemporary.
The Warlow Experiment
In Alix Nathan’s The Warlow Experiment, a wealthy man concocts a radical experiment in order to make a name for himself in the scientific community: a subject will live in a three-room basement, with three daily meals provided, never leaving the premises, for seven years. John Marlow, a deeply sympathetic family man desperate for money, applies for the job. Nathan’s debut shows what happens to a quintessentially good guy remains isolated from the world.
Night Boat to Tangier
The two drug smugglers at the center of Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier are not exactly good people, but the way the novel presents and dissects their actions, their behavior, their identities, allows the reader to empathize, understand, and even like these men who have much to reconcile in their pasts.
When Matthew, a grad student, meets and falls for Leif, a skateboarder and poet, he finds himself quickly immersed in Leif’s world of radical politics, tarot cards, Occupy protesters, and increasing moral dubiety. Caleb Crain’s Overthrow grounds the chaotic movements of the plot through Matthew’s somewhat hapless but ultimately honorable humanity.
Meg Wolitzer’s novel tells the story of a group of childhood friends as they navigate their careers and love lives as adults in New York City. Though the narrator of The Interestings is Jules Jacobson, an aspiring actor, and though the plot includes numerous characters, it’s Ethan Figman who sticks out as a genuine likable person. As writer Deirdre Coyle put it, “Ethan manages not to be a jerk after achieving success.”
Thought Tengo has a lot in common with numerous other Murakami heroes, the protagonist of one of two main threads in his monumental 1Q84 feels particularly endearing and sympathetic. A writer who takes on a ghostwriting job with a prodigy, Tengo’s entrance into a Murakami world works especially well because, despite existing in an alternate universe, he feels in every way like he came from this one.
BONUS LIST: A few classic characters who also aren’t assholes.
Pip, the unforgettable narrator of Dickens’s Great Expectations, is sort of a pawn moved through many unexpected life changes because of the choices, intentions, and whims of other people: his mysterious benefactor, the mercurial Estella, the unbearable Mr. Pumblechook, and the lawyer Mr. Jaggers. But despite being at the behest of everyone else’s interests, Pip remains a generous and forgiving spirit, as well as one of the most memorable characters ever written.
Jean Valjean is also one of the all-time great heroes. After being imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister and attempting to escape many times, Valjean is released and tries to straighten his ways, despite the harshness of the world around him. His heart-wrenching journey and implacable spirit makes it easy to understand why his story has been told and retold in so many iterations over the last 150 years.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Huck Finn is the quintessential non-asshole protagonist (especially compared to Tom Sawyer, who’s inexplicable cruelty and damn-near sadism nearly ruin the ending of the novel), an uneducated boy who believes, as he was taught, that helping free a slave would condemn him to hell, but who does it anyway. That’s moral goodness right there: doing the right thing at great personal cost.
In the 20th century, there proliferated a type of protagonist who would probably be described by their authors as some variation of “cool” or “hip” or “rugged” or some equally coded compliment. They were misanthropic loners who shot from the hip, took no bullshit, engaged in promiscuous sex, and described all their exploits in self-serving style. Though many of these figures rose to classic status—think Rabbit Angstrom, Alexander Portnoy, Augie March, or T.S. Garp—upon closer examination it’s obvious that these characters are often conveniently wrought manifestations of their creators’ fragile egos. Even when they are complex or self-aware, most of the time those traits don’t make up for their loathsome behavior. As David Foster Wallace once wrote of a John Updike hero: “[The protagonist’s] unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first. But it never occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”
Thankfully, many writers can craft complicated male protagonists who, yes, make mistakes and act unethically, but who also aren’t secret (or not-so-secret) misogynists, entitled creeps, or downright horrible people. Here’s a chaser to the reprehensible men whose “adventures” we’ve been forced to stomach for so long.
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