Literary Losers

Long before reviewers tyrannically demanded sympathetic and likable protagonists, literature was reliably populated by leading men of a less bland stripe. It’s hard for me to understand why someone would want to spend their reading hours in the company of the virtuous, the accomplished, and the capable, when failure is so much more interesting—and, sadly, altogether more common. Today, we call them antiheroes (it’s more polite), but to me, they will always be literature’s losers—tormented, feckless, sometimes lovable, sometimes not, but almost always heartbreaking.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Trapped in an unwanted relationship, unable to get his work published, and clinging tenuously to his academic career, poor, embittered Jim Dixon can’t seem to catch a break. Campus politics were never so funny, and Jim’s climactic drunken lecture looms large in the pantheon of the misbegotten.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The icy Thomas Fowler, an expatriate British journalist in his fifties, is one of Greene’s great cynics, addicted to opium and to his young mistress. His louche existence is upended by Alden Pyle, a naive young American, with whom Fowler finds himself in deadly conflict.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

In this classic novella, forty-something Tommy Wilhelm is broke, unemployed, estranged from his family, and in the orbit of a smooth-talking fraud. And it’s all about to get much worse.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Tragicomic Timofey Pavlovich Pnin is doomed from the outset as he tries, unsuccessfully, to navigate the shark-infested waters of Waindell College. A scene in which Pnin helps a squirrel drink from a water fountain is one of the most memorable and poignant moments in Nabokov’s often chilly oeuvre.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

If James Bond made a generation of young boys want to be secret agents, the dissolute, ruthless, self-loathing Alec Leamas made a career in the sanitation arts look noble by comparison. Take that, 007!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Arthur Dent’s troubles begin when his home is demolished to make way for a highway bypass, and he spends the next five books of Adams’s “increasingly inaccurately named” trilogy fleeing aliens, with not much more than a rabbit bone in his beard and a towel.

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

It’s hard to think of a more complete reprobate than Lewis “Teabag” Miner, whose days consist of devouring drugs, scouring the Internet for leg-warmer porn, and churning out embittered, unprintable dispatches for his high school newsletter. And still, strangely, we ache for him.

Ticknor by Sheila Heti

A man, a pie, a rainy night. En route to a dinner party at the home of the famous William Prescott, Heti’s morose hero, George Ticknor, trudges through a storm, mentally revisiting a life of perceived slights. Unlike his real-life model, this Ticknor is an embittered also-ran, full of plans and intentions never realized, always alert to the whispers behind his back.

Host of the literary weblog the Elegant Variation, Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel Harry, Revised, which was published in 2008 by Bloomsbury and has just been released in paperback.