Now, don’t worry, we’re not telling you you’ve got to spend a lot of time at the library. Or dedicate yourself to the written word like some crazy 14th century monk. But, there are some characters every sophisticated man should be familiar with. If only enough to bullshit your way through a cocktail party and possibly into some literate lovely’s panties. Because nothing says “I’ve got crazy sex skills” like a casual reference to…
Sir Harry Paget Flashman
Created by George Macdonald Fraser, who also wrote the Bond film “Octopussy,” Flashman is a British soldier, swashbuckler, coward, traitor, and ruthless bedder of women. The 12 faux-biographical Flashman books take place between 1839 and 1894, as Flashy engages in – and usually causes – all sorts of real calamities and wars, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Harper Ferry’s Raid, the Battle at Little Big Horn and the Taiping Rebellion (each book is so well researched and foot-noted that the first volume was mistaken for non-fiction by many academics). Along the way Flashman meets and either cons, kills or sexes up a number of historical figures, among them Abraham Lincoln, Queen Ravalona I of Madagascar, Otto Van Bismarck and actress Lilly Langtry.
Flashman, whose only reliable skills are his way with languages, horses, and women, reaps riches, fame and honors, including a knighthood, as he commits one atrocity after another, each more self-serving and hilarious than the last. Consume these volumes and you’ll discover what fiction can teach us about the realities of history, war, heroism and persuading the fairer sex to have rougher sex.
Probably the model for Magnum, P.I., McGee is a heroic beach bum, and “salvage consultant,” who helps the abused and disenfranchised recover their valuables and their dignity. An ex-professional football player and possibly a former US Marine, McGee lives on a houseboat in the Florida Keys (named the “Busted Flush” after the poker hand with which he won it) and drives a blue Rolls-Royce, refashioned into a sort of pickup truck. He’s a man’s man, as generous with his fists as with a glass of gin, and a ladies’ man, who almost begrudgingly sleeps with every woman who comes his way. Uh-huh: he’s pretty much the opposite of you.
Created by page-spewing novelist John D. Macdonald in 1964, McGee survived twenty-one bestselling books, each with a colorful title (e.g. “Bright Orange for the Shroud”). Over the course of 20 years and 21 life-threatening adventures, Macdonald’s brawny knight is also a modern philosopher, commenting thoughtfully on American popular culture, religion, racial politics, the sexual revolution, and, well ahead of his time, environmentalism. Yeah, that’s right: this cat knew Florida needed to be saved well before you ever got there for Spring Break and crapped it up forever.
The McGee books are so good that Macdonald’s self-professed fans include Stephen King, Carl Hiaasen, Kurt Vonnegut and Ian Fleming. Oh. And Oliver Stone, who is currently developing a film version of the first McGee tale, “The Deep Blue Good-by,” inexplicably starring that eternal teenager, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Poor Arthur Dent. In the beginning of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comedy “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” of which Arthur is the main character if not its brightest star, he loses his beloved house mere minutes before his planet – our planet – is destroyed by aliens. Arthur is saved from both disasters by his best friend, an alien named Ford Prefect. Arthur is then unwittingly launched into a story that travels across space and time. He meets more, and wildly different, aliens, including the fast-talking and imbecilic two-headed President of the Galaxy (Ford’s cousin, natch) and the man who actually designed planet Earth years earlier (no, it isn’t God). He suffers greatly. And, in a part you will probably identify with, he fails to win the heart of the seemingly last female Earthling alive. Throughout this ordeal Arthur manages to maintain a mostly even keel, affecting the same emotions – confusion, bewilderment and a strong sense that he probably has somewhere better to be but not knowing where that might be – that most men find themselves suffering from as they parade through a mall with the wife and kids.
Based on a radio play, “Hitchhiker’s” is volume one of a trilogy with six books in it. It is a masterpiece of wit and imagination, but the entire oeuvre is sort of like a six-pack drank slowly in the hot sun; that first one is the greatest thing ever, the sixth is only worth consuming so you can brag that you did so.
The Invisible Man
No, not that one. Not the one that makes you want to be invisible so you too can sneak around peeping on women. This “Invisible Man” is the unnamed hero of Ralph Ellison’s literary epic on the African-American experience. You’re not going to read this and want to be him. This is a serious book, if you will. And, if you won’t, then you should all-the-more, because this is a book that will rock you as much with its powerful and damning message as with its evocative and stunning visual imagery. And there’s even some parts that are funny. Try pulling that combo off sometime.
The Invisible Man’s experiences are stunning and, more than fifty years after the book’s publication, serve as a reminder not only of how bad things were in the United States well after the Civil War but how far America has come. Over the course of the book, the narrator literally fights for a college scholarship, moves to NYC (like Felicity, only not at all), works in a paint factory known for its shades of white, and causes a riot by defending a couple being evicted from their apartment. The Invisible Man’s journey is as complex as his reactions to it. When he finally goes underground, into one of the most memorable havens in all literature, the reader doesn’t quite know what to think. In a good way. No. In a great way.
Calvin is a lot like his comic strip predecessor Charlie Brown. They both seem innocent, but their insights are always dead-on profound. But Calvin is also very different from Charlie Brown. Mostly because Calvin has a lot more sack and joie de vivre. That his sidekick, Hobbes, is a tiger that appears to others as a toy, but to Calvin as a real tiger, is not only the defining conceit of the strip, it’s why Calvin resonates as an amazing and lovable literary hero: he is filled with wonder, energy, imagination, mischief and a deep affection for another creature.
Whether pretending to be a dinosaur, building a mutant snowman, or careening down a snowy hill on his sled, Calvin is a better, livelier version of the boy trapped in all of us; he hasn’t abandoned his dreams yet. In fact, he’s not even a sell-out as a character because Bill Watterson, Calvin’s creator, refused to license merchandise. Ever. Okay, not ever. There were like two calendars, a textbook and a single T-shirt. But that’s it.
So, if you see Calvin or Hobbes peeing on the back, tinted window of a big-wheel SUV, it’s bootleg garbage. Though you probably don’t want to get too aggressive with the guy driving that vehicle. He might piss on you. Instead, head to your local bookstore and pick up one of Mr. Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes collections. He’s only sold 45 million of them.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim or one of those other, not-as-well publicized religions. Either way, Jesus Christ is a figure you should be familiar with. No, simply knowing who he is, or having been to a Catholic wedding, or watching South Park is not good enough. The dude is one of the leads in the most successful book of all time. Son of God or not, his exploits are alluded to in so many of our cultural treasures, whether they be poetry, prose, painting, or the end of “Empire Strikes Back.”
Not to mention, if you read carefully, you may be surprised at what you find. Walking on water? Coming back from the dead? Casting out demons? Turning water into wine? All that, and messages of hope, love, and compassion? Come on. Divinity aside, that’s top-quality shit.