Don't let the theme fool you. These three books are anything but failures. They are, in fact, full of sharply rendered and utterly original characters who fail spectacularly in their attempts to do right (or what they think is right). They are men on a mission, variously heroic, harebrained, heartfelt, even cruel, but their good intentions are undeniable, if not always admirable.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Failure is something we've all likely experienced. And it's something that the writer Lysley Tenorio knows well. He'll also tell you it's a common theme in literature. Tenorio has these recommendations of books that feature characters facing failure, as part of our series Three Books.
LYSLEY TENORIO: Don't let the theme fool you. These three books are anything but failures. They are, in fact, full of sharply rendered and utterly original characters who fail spectacularly in their attempts to do right or what they think is right.
When the murderer of his brother-in-law receives a lenient prison sentence, Owen Patterson seeks revenge on behalf of his brokenhearted wife and in-laws. Under the pseudonym of Lily Hazleton, Owen begins writing letters to the killer, determined to woo him, then break his heart. Despite this misguided attempt at justice, there's something oddly heroic about his scheme. But Owen's plans backfire horribly, and his marriage and emotional stability begin to unravel as well. Antoine Wilson's "The Interloper" is at turns creepy and disturbing, tender and sad, and Owen is an endlessly fascinating creation.
Charles Yu's story collection, "Third Class Superhero," features mostly young men who lead dead-end lives against fantastical backdrops. The title story features Moisture Man, possessor of the rather unsuperpower, which enables him to take about 2 gallons of water from the moisture in the air and shoot it in a stream or a gentle mist or a ball. With such meager abilities, he fails repeatedly to get his superhero certification, which includes health insurance. In a desperate attempt for super-street cred, he sells top-secret intel to the shady character Johnnie Blade. In exchange, he gets the power of flight.
His deal, of course, sends his superhero friends crashing down, and the story suggests a lonely end, disconnected from that thing to which he'd once aspired. But Yu manages to take the whimsy of this two-dimensional comic book world and blur the lines of good and evil in ways unexpectedly poignant and profound.
The protagonist of Joe Meno's novel, "The Boy Detective Fails," is former kid sleuth Billy Argo, who, at the age of 30, makes a painful re-entry from a mental hospital. He arrives in a world far more mysterious than that of his crime-solving youth. Now, whole buildings vanish and decapitated ghouls randomly appear, and his lifelong archenemy rides the bus with Billy on his way home from a dead-end job. Meno strikes a perfect balance in his ability to capture the wonder of our favorite childhood novels while evoking the undeniable loss of having to leave those stories behind. "Boy Detective" is one of the most moving books I've read in years.
As a kid, I longed for superpowers. I wished death to be a cheatable thing, and I yearned to exact revenge on those who did me wrong. Luckily for me, those were impossible things. But fortunately for us, these three authors bring to life characters who, despite their failures, at least have the guts to defy the odds. They try and try, and they come up short. We should all be so lucky to fail as spectacularly.
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SIEGEL: Lysley Tenorio is the author of the short story collection "Monstress." He lives in San Francisco. And you can find his Three Books recommendations and more at npr.org. Click on Books. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.