As we previously shared with you in our 17 Favorite Fictional Books set In NYC, there are various collections of great literature with New York City as their setting. However, there are more works of fiction particularly adept at capturing the truth, flavor and ambiance of New York City during a specific period of time. Here are 11 of some of our favorites of fiction that have used New York City as its setting, each categorized by a specific decade of the 20th century.
Released in 1908, The Melting Pot is a poignant parable about love set in New York City during the 1900s. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, the play centers around the relationship between David Quixano and Vera, two Russian immigrants whose conflicting religious backgrounds creates turmoil. Fun fact, the famous play popularized the term “melting pot”.
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton is the story of Undine Spragg, a girl from the Midwest fiercely determined to climb up the New York City social ladder. The critically acclaimed novel provides a realistic portrait of the privileged lifestyles of the people that were part of the upper crust of New York City society during the 1910s.
Regarded as a crown jewel in the world of literature, The Great Gatsby centers around an enigmatic millionaire named Jay Gatsby, as well as his romantic obsession for Daisy Buchanan. Everything that we associate with the Roaring Twenties, such as bootlegging, flappers, speakeasies and jazz music, can be found in this novel, plus scenes of Manhattan in the Skyscraper age and that famous quote of New York seen from the Queensborough Bridge. An exquisitely crafted tale about the American Dream, decadence and the dark side of glamour, F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s novel could easily be regarded as an accurate portrait of 1920s New York.
Regarded by many critics to be his greatest work, John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer is a classic of 1920s New York City fiction. Emphasizing the economic disparity between rich power brokers and poor immigrants, the novel is a compelling portrait of New York City in the 1920s.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay follows the lives of Samuel Clay and Josef Kavalier, two Jewish cousins who forge successful careers in the comic book industry during what was known as “The Golden Age of Comics,” an era from the late 1930s to the early 1950s where comics books reached their peak in popularity. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Award for Fiction in 2001.
Released in 1957, On The Road chronicles the adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they travel across the country with a carefree sense of freedom by indulging in sex, drugs and their love for the written word. The novel is highly regarded at the ultimate representation of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac even based some of the characters in On The Road on famous writers of the Beat movement, such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
The protagonist in City of Night is a young man who makes a living traveling across the country working as a hustler. Although New York City is not the sole setting in the novel, it plays an integral role in the narrator’s journey. One of the book’s more notable settings, Times Square is accurately described as the seedy environment it was known as in the 1960s, compared to its current relevance as a tourist attraction.
Hubert Selby’s Requiem for A Dream offers a very gritty representation of New York City during the 1970s. Released in 1978, the novel chronicles the lives of four New Yorkers as they grapple with the menacing world of drug addiction. A film adaptation of the novel, starring Jared Leto and Ellen Burstyn, was released in 2000.
Jay McInerney’s novel, Bright Lights, Big City, uses second person narration to paint the life of an unnamed protagonist whose disillusionment with his career and love life leads him on a cocaine fueled binge through New York City’s party scene, with only his Ray Bans in tow. Jay Mclnerney accurately depicts 1980’s city life with pitch perfect precision, offering the reader visual descriptions of graffiti-laced subway cars and high end fashion shows . If you read closely, there’s also a subtle reference to Phillipe Petit’s daring high-wire act across the World Trade Center. A film adaptation of the novel, starring Michael J. Fox, was released in 1987.
Henry Chang’s novel Chinatown Beat centers around Jack Yu, an Chinese American detective that works for the NYPD . Henry Wu’s detailed prose is only surpassed by his gritty and sometimes unsettling depiction of Chinatown during 1990s.
Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man is centered around a survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his experiences thereafter. In the early pages of the novel, DeLillo vividly depicts the protagonist’s harrowing escape from the Twin Towers. Filled with themes revolving around life and death, the novel’s realistic approach toward tragedy should strike a chord with readers who have dealt with issues similar to that of the protagonist.
Read on for 10 favorite non fiction books set in New York City as well as NYC’s 22 Best Independent Bookstores.