likeable bastards
October 13, 2012 8:31 AM   Subscribe

becauseIonlyaskaboutbooksfilter: Books featuring a likeable bastard main character.


Just please no journeys to "redeem" oneself or apologies for his/her bastardly actions, which lends itself to too much likeable and not enough bastard. Thanks.
posted by goosechasing to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
You won't get many better examples than Mickey Sabbath in Phillips Roth's Sabbath's Theater.
posted by cincinnatus c at 8:37 AM on October 13, 2012

The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy.
posted by dortmunder at 8:39 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:41 AM on October 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

Leaving Las Vegas, perhaps?
posted by Melismata at 8:45 AM on October 13, 2012

In literature this is often called a Picaresque novel and the Wikipedia page that is in that link has some other examples.
posted by bove at 8:51 AM on October 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Tom Ripley, although he might not be likable enough.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:52 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler. Hooray for CanLit!
posted by Dorinda at 8:54 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mordecai Richler specialized in that kind of character.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:54 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wolf Larson from Jack London's The Sea Wolf.

John Self in Martin Amis' Money.
posted by notyou at 8:57 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hank Chinaski (Bukowski) is the most likeable bastard.
posted by notyou at 9:00 AM on October 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure a picaresque is the actual term you want to look for. Those are more of loosely connected stories about a main character (like Don Quixote). You want an unreliable or unlikeable narrator.

Sam the Cat by Matthew Klam
seconding Sabbath's Theater
"Everything That Rises Must Converge"and "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor
Digrace by JM Coetzee (although David Lurie sort of redeems himself)

I'm sure there are more ... I'll have to think.
posted by mrfuga0 at 9:09 AM on October 13, 2012

The Lies of Locke Lamora features a whole gang of this type. Utterly delightful!
posted by mochapickle at 9:16 AM on October 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

See the titular character in Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:16 AM on October 13, 2012

Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep.
posted by munyeca at 9:24 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Possibly Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black.
posted by Houstonian at 9:32 AM on October 13, 2012

If you're open to comics/graphic novels, John Constantine from the Hellblazer books is exactly what you're looking for. He puts in an extended appearance in Alan Moore's excellent run on Swamp Thing as well.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:35 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the Road! Dean/Neal is the archetypal likeable bastard - selfish, annoying, inconvenient, but also intelligent, fascinating, wild. The entire book is arguably about this.
posted by Tom-B at 9:41 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
posted by Tom-B at 9:47 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Arthur Nersesian's The Fuckup, which I seem to be recommending a whole lot recently, has a great likeable bastard narrator. There's some sort of redemptive ending, but it isn't actually clear whether it turns him into a nice guy or not — I like to see it as a transformation from one kind of bastard into another, which is a lot more interesting.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:52 AM on October 13, 2012

Ignatius J. Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces?
posted by Cocodrillo at 9:53 AM on October 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I came in to mention Flashman. I can't think of a better example. Marlowe is an interesting counterpoint but actually I'd say he is competely the opposite: unlikeable but with an extremely strong sense of ethics.
posted by crocomancer at 9:57 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you heard of this obscure character named James Bond? If you can ignore some very dated attitudes towards women and minorities, Ian Fleming's books are thrilling reads.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:58 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you like Fantasy, Jorg Ancrath, the main character of Prince of Thorns, is a sadistic little fuck. I have yet to read the sequel, but I really enjoyed reading about an amoral fantasy protagonist.
posted by Strass at 9:59 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Chandler's Marlowe, though the book I think strikes this tone to a greater extent is Farewell My Lovely (and maybe The Little Sister even more so, but that's a lesser book). The hard boiled detective writers seem to try for this tone. Chandler mostly nails it. MacDonald's Lew Archer may be a touch too likeable; Hammett's Sam Spade a touch too bastardly.
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:59 AM on October 13, 2012

Warning: TVTROPES!

Magnificent Bastard

Manipulative Bastard

Sociopathic Hero


Check under the 'Literature' tab.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:00 AM on October 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I recently read something obscure by Thomas Berger called Sneaky People that has a protagonist, in fact a lot of characters who fit this requirement.

Also, agree about Dean Moriarity, but disagree about Philip Marlowe.
posted by Rash at 10:01 AM on October 13, 2012

Yup, seconding Money by Martin Amis.
posted by lulu68 at 10:11 AM on October 13, 2012

I'm also thinking about Iain M. Banks. A lot of his viewpoint characters start from the Likeable Bastard archetype. But then he tends to fuck around with the archetype, either by revealing the characters to be profoundly Unlikeable, or by putting them in a setting where they can actually do what they want without breaking any rules or hurting anyone or otherwise really counting as Bastards.

Still, you'd probably enjoy most of the Culture series, which is all about the sorts of themes you're interested in: fun, independence, anarchy, greed, self-interest, self-destructiveness, curiosity, the fantasy of total freedom, the urge to stir shit up.

The Algebraist, which has a whole planet populated entirely by (literally) larger-than-life comically inept Likeable Bastards, is also worth a shot.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:13 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair!
posted by spunweb at 10:21 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The entire Rebus series by Ian Rankin.
posted by chapps at 10:30 AM on October 13, 2012

Just finished reading Headhunters by Jo Nesbø. The main character is unlikeable, a real bastard in my book. I would not be his friend. His attitude supports the story, though.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:33 AM on October 13, 2012

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov.
posted by dragonfruit at 10:39 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan.

Name of the main character just happens to be Jake Marlowe...which brings me to my next comment of seconding Chandler's The Big Sleep, btw.
posted by Temeraria at 10:46 AM on October 13, 2012

As usual, Eugene Henderson from 'Henderson the Rain King' by Saul Bellow. He is a truly likeable bastard. There's no question the guy's a bit of a bastard but you also want to be best friends with him from like page 10.

I've only read 'The Black Prince' and 'A Severed Head' by Iris Murdoch, but so far all the male characters are likeable bastards. Upper class British men who are all great friends and also really hate each other. Although really the female characters are bastards too. Lots of bastardy in an Iris Murdoch book suffice it to say.

Real life likeable bastard: Garry Kasparov in 'Mortal Games' by Fred Waitzkin

In Jim Harrison's 'Dalva,' Dalva's gentleman companion Michael really stretches the limits of likeability and bastardy but somehow remains generally in good graces.

The Consul and his pariah dogs from 'Under the Volcano' by Malcolm Lowry. Drunk.

Humbert Humbert, of course, of 'Lolita.'

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the patriarch of 'The Brothers Karamazov'

And Bjartur Gudbjartson from Halldor Laxness' 'Independent People.' Lots of grumbly Icelandic men sitting in shanties drinking so much coffee they're drenched in sweat. Animal husbandry envy. And the most stubborn man in the world.

Edit ftw.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:04 AM on October 13, 2012

Funny you should ask. I'm working on a piece about "the wretch," and I've been trying to collect a film/literary archive of wretchedness.

My archetype is Dostoevsky's man from underground. I don't think it gets better than that. And then, of course, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, from The Brothers Karamazov and Raskalnikov from Crime and Punishment.

Shakespeare has a number of likable bastards, and then he has a number of bastards who almost make themselves likable. In the first category, I would include a number of figures from the comedies: Petruchio, Benedick, Puck. In the second category, I include figures mostly from the tragedies, like Richard III and Iago.

Henry Miller's I-narrator is a likable bastard. Baudellaire, Rimbaud. Céline. Not sure if Yossarian quite reaches the rank of bastard, but he certainly comes close. Rebelais has some good bastards. I don't know if Sade's characters are likable, but they're certainly bastards. Kafka's Joseph K. or K. might qualify as bastards, as misogynistic and aggressive as they sometimes are. Walter Mosley has a lot of bastards. Tao Lin is an up-and-coming bastard. Lena Dunham is a member of that small and elite group of female bastards, in which we might also include Marie Calloway.

This is my bastard post for now. I'll let you know if I think of others.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 11:14 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, Bertoldt Brecht has a lot of likable bastards. Galileo in the eponymous play. The judge in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The alter ego of The Good Person of Sechuan. Mother Courage in the eponymous play...

Peter Weiss' Marquis de Sade in his enormously-titled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed By the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade is also a bastard.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 11:27 AM on October 13, 2012

Seconding Philip Marlowe-- he's the first guy that came to mind. Nobody get a free ride with Marlowe, not even Marlowe.

And hey roger akroyd-- "James Bond?" The guy that wrote the Audubon guide? What kind of name for a hero is that?
posted by Sunburnt at 11:27 AM on October 13, 2012

SM Stirling's Draka series
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:28 AM on October 13, 2012

Also, thinking about it more, there's some really fantastic bastards in Balzac.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:29 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

alex in a clockwork orange
posted by brujita at 11:54 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I freaking LOVE History of a Pleasure Seeker. He's sexy, young, brawny and brainy, rather selfish (though fair in mutual pleasure seeking!) totally conniving, a jerk, etc... The kind of guy we love to hate!

But damn. Such a great book and such a great character!
posted by rhythm_queen at 12:12 PM on October 13, 2012

I love love love Devices & Desires by K.J. Parker. It's the first in a trilogy where an engineer takes revenge on his authoritarian home kingdom by allying himself with their political archenemies and crippling his enemies slowly, cleverly, and ruthlessly over the course of the series.

All of the characters in this series are loveable bastards/bitches. They're all awful people but you get to see the story from each of their points of view a little, and grow to kind of like them, but then they do something bad and you want to choke them. And they're all trying to betray each other while simultaneously being betrayed themselves.

posted by wintersonata9 at 12:37 PM on October 13, 2012

Ha, I also came in to recommend K. J. Parker - just about every book he/she has ever written would fit the bill. There are three separate trilogies and four standalone novels, all fantasy, all excellent, and all with likeable yet shockingly amoral protagonists.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:54 PM on October 13, 2012

Sandman Slim novels by Richard Kadrey.
posted by SpecialK at 1:59 PM on October 13, 2012

Strongly disagree about Marlowe.

Neither "tarnished" nor "mean" strikes me as not being much of a bastard at all.

Maybe Sebastien Moran from Kim Newman's Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles?
posted by juv3nal at 3:08 PM on October 13, 2012

The debt to pleasure by john lanchester
Perfume by patrick suskind
The first law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
posted by Jakey at 3:48 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since all of my top choices are taken, I'll add Rooster Cogburn in True Grit by Charles Portis.
posted by maurice at 4:31 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lawrence Sanders' McNally series has a main character not all the way at the end of the "bastard" spectrum (an Amazon review described him as a "charming rogue") - but the books are very entertaining light reading.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:21 PM on October 13, 2012

Kingsley Amis probably thought half his male characters were likeable bastards; hell, he probably thought he was one, which is sad.
posted by BibiRose at 8:42 PM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Francis Crawford in The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
posted by Joleta at 10:26 PM on October 13, 2012

Peter Jernigan by David Gates
posted by chavenet at 8:10 AM on October 15, 2012

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