Ever since you started reading this blog, you’ve been thinking: Mike, tell us, just who are your favorite literary characters? Well, as one of the Little Rascal characters once said, “Isthmus be your lucky day.”
To the list! Go!
Conor Larkin, from Trinity, by Leon Uris. I read this book the summer after I graduated from college, and it is the only 900 page book that I have reread in its entirety. For me, this book was revelation about what it means to be Irish. Larkin is what I never was: big, strong, quiet and heroic. He had the capacity to endure great suffering and deprivation, and to love passionately a love he could never have.
After I read the book, I resolved to name my first son Conor, assuming that identity could be destiny. I ended up being blessed with an Emma and a Kate; still, Conor Larkin did more to inspire me to become a man, a certain kind of man, than anyone I knew in three-dimensional form.
Alyosha Karamazov, from The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Amid a sea of turbulent characters, Alyosha stands alone as a constant, reliable model of unconditional love. If it weren’t for the fact that he is so humble, so gracious that nobody can disappoint him, everyone would disappoint him. He loves God as much as life itself, yet never chides his atheist brother or threatens him with the consequences of unbelief, never scolds his rash, emotionally and physically violent brother Dmitri, but stands by him through all his trials. When a group of boys throws rocks at him, he takes them under his wing and stands with them hand in hand at the novel’s inspiring ending.
As a teacher I consciously try to be Alyosha, though I don’t always succeed. Sure, it creates the impression that I’m unconcerned with deadlines and the other details of infrastructure that keep high school classrooms from collapsing on themselves, but whatev. Alyosha wouldn’t get bothered by judgment when he knows his heart is in the right place.
Inman, from Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. I was living the twentysomething life with my buddies, but one Labor Day weekend, I got so wrapped up in this book that I stayed home by myself instead of going to the beach because I couldn’t leave Inman as he trekked across North Carolina on his nineteenth century Odyssey. Inman had endured insult and two literarily symbolic deaths, and had renounced violence in a violent world on his way home to Ada and the kind of love that Dostoevsky describes as equal parts passion and compassion. If any character ever deserved a happy ending, it was Inman.
And – SPOILER ALERT! – what does Charles Frazier do? He kills him! After a while, I realized why it was necessary (unlike – SPOILER ALERT! – Hemingway’s murder of Catherine Barkley, for which there was absolutely no justification), but that didn’t make it hurt any less. I can still see myself sitting on that couch in our Chickahominy duplex, dumbstruck. I was too selfish to care about actual human beings, but I was crushed by Inman’s death. If that wasn’t bad enough, Hollywood had to add insult to injury by casting Jude Law in the movie. Jude Law! Please, don’t get me started.
Outside the First Triumvirate, the Second Triumvirate:
James Jarvis from Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. After his son, who lives hundreds of miles away in Johannesburg, is killed by the son of one of James’ neighbors, James goes on his own journey of discovery and forgiveness. By the end of the novel it is James who repays his neighbor by teaching him and his people how to sustainably farm the land, and providing the money to rebuild his church.
Balram Halwai, from The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. Maybe it’s because we’re reading Grendel now in my AP classes, but my mind can’t help but wander fondly back to the narcissistic, psychopathic protagonist of this story. Balram’s balance of self-pitying victimhood, misguided intelligence and charm makes him exactly the kind of maniac you’d love to be around for your amusement, provided he didn’t kill you.
Amir, from The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. I don’t know how Hosseini does it, but he makes me really uncomfortable while forcing me to keep reading. Amir messed up, big time, when he was younger, and spends his adult life trying to atone for his actions. Through a journey of thousands of miles, a cathartic beating at the hands of the criminal who had initiated the horrible chain of events in the story, and his insistent love for a wounded child, Amir finally finds redemption. Thanks, Debbie Westfal, for the recommendation.
Yeah, there are themes in here, but don’t psychoanalyze me, man. Instead, share your favorites.