If I had to pick a few novels that I’d recommend in a heartbeat, they would have to be, in no particular order (and as only the beginning of a discussion):
“Juneteenth” by Ralph Ellison. He set out to put the American experience all into one book, and even though this is a posthumously published part of an unfinished novel, it’s still pretty doggone close.
“Miss Lonelyhearts” and “The Day of the Locust” by Nathaniel West. A teacher in college recommended this book to me, fascinating in itself and makes you wish he’d lived longer and written more.
“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth. This is an awesome book. Everything is a Chinese box, with characters within characters. Everyone’s a stereotype, and yet they’re not. Best American novel written in the last ten years, for me.
Three way tie: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, “Less Than Zero” by Bret Eason Ellis, “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney. They’re hyperbolic, manic, mannered, and yet they perfectly sum up a time and a place. And very funny, and appalling, and appallingly funny, and funny because they’re appalling.
“The Dogs of Babel” by Carolyn Parkhurst. I laughed when I heard the premise of this book, chalking it up to the idea that a publisher will print any novel as long as it’s not mine. But I loved this book so much.
“In the Beauty of the Lilies” by John Updike. I loved this book the most of all of his, because it weaves the movies and religion into a rich generational tapestry.
“Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie. I thoroughly enjoyed this book last year, not just for the story, which was very riveting, but the long prosy riffs he unravels so effortlessly.
“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. I read this one afternoon at the river and could smell the wind coming off the Keys. When I finally went to Key West, I felt like I had already been there.
“Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow. He was another that I had to read everything he’d written. This is his best, though “The March” was as good a book as I’ve read in the past five years.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It’s unfortunate that Steinbeck’s critical reputation has fallen down, because this is a wonderful work that unfortunately gets typecast as Depression era agitprop. Instead, it’s ageless, sweeping, and compulsively readable.
And for my money, the greatest American novel ever is “The Great Gatsby.” I wouldn’t have said that necessarily 10 years ago, but I’ve reread it at least three times since then, and it gets better every single time.