Sloane Crosley’s new novel, Cult Classic, follows a New Yorker whose encounters with multiple exes lead her into a Lower East Side cult. Below, the best-selling author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake recommends books seeped in downtown culture.
Low Life by Luc Sante (1991)
This should be required reading for anyone who signs a lease below 14th Street. I like to think I have a unique connection to this book, having discovered it after nearly moving into a former brothel, once known as McGurk’s Suicide Hall, that Sante details. The building was never granted landmark status. It’s a community garden now. Buy it here.
Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis (1998)
This is a controversial recommendation because the “correct” answer to Ellis’ Best Portrait of New York is American Psycho. But the string of proper nouns in Glamorama, a gloriously over-the-top ’90s New York satire, has stuck with me for life. I just adore it. Buy it here.
The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead (2003)
The essays in this book are not confined to downtown, though many hover there. The opening and most heavily quoted piece in it, written shortly after 9/11, is a stunner: “The city knows you better than any living person…” Some part of me thinks of it every time I put my key in my door. Buy it here.
The Golden Spur by Dawn Powell (1962)
Powell is one of those major New York writers who keeps getting lost and found again. This is her last novel. Her earlier work is magnificent — so start anywhere — but, in this instance, come for the shout-outs to Chumley’s and The White Horse, two historic downtown watering holes. Buy it here.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (2013)
In this book, set in the 1970s, Kushner captures a Soho chockablock with artists, activists, and fabulists like no one else. It’s so vivid. (And, if I may squeeze in a less popular recommendation, Molly Prentiss’ 2016 book, Tuesday Nights in 1980, feels like a distant but deserving cousin of The Flamethrowers.) Buy it here.
What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (1941)
If novels had taglines, this one would be, “You can take the boy out of the Lower East Side, but…” Schulberg’s portrait of a man — based on his father — who climbs out of dog-eat-dog poverty on Rivington Street, finagling his way into mogul status in Hollywood, is a gem. It’s a California novel with tenement roots. Buy it here.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.