Craig Finn is the lead singer of a band called The Hold Steady and I’ve always loved his songwriting. Finn is something like a poet laureate of Midwestern malaise, extracting tragicomic pathos from a particular type of exurban bullshit that speaks to my upbringing in southern Ontario. So many of Finn’s songs are like perfectly crafted short stories filled with drunken city dwellers and grimy bus stations, sad teenagers wandering around looking for booze or pills or both.
But Finn has a light touch when it comes to misery and clearly loves his flawed characters, imbuing much of his writing with a longing that almost passes for hope; hope for escape, for love, for something as basic and human as a moment of stability.
So I wasn’t surprised to see who his favorite writers are, as the Pittsburgh City Paper said in this recent interview:
I’ve always read fiction, so at first it was like everything. The things that really turned me on in high school were the classics – Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, that sort of thing. Now, a lot of it is literary stuff that a lot of people read. Phillip Roth. Richard Russo. George Saunders. Tom Perrotta. I love Denis Johnson. Right now I’m reading Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart, the Scottish author who wrote Shuggie bath. I also like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, tough guys.
Yeah, just white people. (For the record, almost all of them I like too.)
Listen, I firmly believe that anyone can – and should – read whatever they want. It’s not a dunk on Craig Finn, who was clearly answering a short promotional Q&A before the gig; I’m sure Finn has a lot of female writers he likes. But in case he hasn’t come across the following books, I think he would like them. (Also, the guy in this interview should probably read these women too.)
Lucia Berlin, A Handbook for Housekeepers
It’s probably my most recommended book of the past five years: from shattered dreams in dimly lit hotel rooms to hard-earned revelations by the side of the freeway, no one misses the American more than Berlin.
Alice Munro, Hatred, friendship, courtship, love, marriage
Among his many other supernatural literary talents, Munro is a master of compaction: entire lives can pass in a few of his wondrous sentences, full and joyful and tragic…and brief. It’s not a bad skill to have if you’re, say, writing songs.
ZZ-Packer, Drink coffee elsewhere
Packer is one of our best short story writers and Drink coffee elsewhere is one of my favorite collections. Of course we all feel like we don’t belong at one point into our lives, but Packer’s strangers — whether they roam the streets of Atlanta searching for their mothers or bring chaos to their freshman year at Yale — are particularly apart, levitating with an internal intensity through their own unlikely lives. (Bonus: Packer is funny too.)
Svetlana Alexievitch, The unfeminine faces of war
The second Nobel laureate on this list, Alexievitch’s epic oral histories are remarkable documents of life in extremis, from the depredations of war to the slow apocalypse of nuclear fallout. What makes her a genius, however, are the details of daily life that she chooses to let inthe almost too human meticulousness that every good songwriter dreams of.
Danielle Evans, Before you smother your own fool
Like the characters in a Craig Finn song, the people who populate the stories in Evans’ collection often find themselves wading through that difficult space between adolescence and adulthood, making bad decisions, doing whatever they can. to be their own worst enemies. And, like Finn, Evans isn’t there to assure young people that things are getting better, only, perhaps, to show that it’s possible to survive longer than you think.