10 counter culture novels that will get you high on life


From the European Romantics of the 18th century avant-garde to the pre-WWI Bohemians, the world’s been struck by many a powerful counter-cultural movement. The one that’s closest to our hearts, though, spanned the mid-twentieth century, and was rooted in the USA: from the post-War 1940s right though to the early days of the 1970s, America was bombarded with hippies, flower-power, drop-outs, squatters, pacifist campaigners and (not least) feminists, each of them battling against the status-quo and the staid, conservative middle-classes. And what helped to stir this revolutionary stew?

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Why, books, of course! Writers were right there in the thick of it, scribbling literary rallying cries that we’re still hearing today. It’s hard to know where to start – Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Burroughs’ Naked Lunch? – but here, anyway, is a small selection of our favourites.

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

It’s trippy, it’s tragic, and It’s one of the finest, saddest, most savage indictments of war ever written. It’s full title is Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, and it features a time-travelling soldier, Billy Pilgrim, who’s held prisoner in Dresden as the Allies bombed it during WWII. The best sci-fi satire you’ll ever read.


Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger (1961)

 Maybe a little less famous than The Catcher in the Rye (another counter-cultural classic that railed against bourgeois phonies), this idiosyncratic two-part novel tells the story of the disenchanted Glass siblings – Franny, whose date with an intellectualizing jerk goes terribly, and her brother Zooey, who tries to cheer her up by passing on the wisdom of their elder brother, Seymour, who killed himself some years back. Salinger’s interest in eastern spiritualism and meditation – very popular at the time – comes through in this book, and the sibling relationship is obliquely touching. It received mixed reviews at the time but continues to have a huge cult following – well deservedly, we reckon.


The Group, Mary McCarthy (1963)

Sex and the City for the sixties (but much smarter), this novel was banned in some counties (Australia – we’re looking at you) when it first came out. Its frank depiction of the sexual lives and attitudes of a group of female friends post-university in the early twentieth century made its contemporary readers re-examine their lives as housewives and mothers. A hugely significant feminist text, this one was (and is) counter-cultural to the core.


Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)

Slaughterhouse Five might be the best sci-I satire you’ll read, but Heller’s modern classic is flat out the best satire ever (according to us, ahem). Join Yossarian, Nately, Major Major Major and Milo Minderbinder as they try to scam, dodge and hide their way through WWII without dying as the rules keep changing around them. Its non-chronological structure is trippy in the extreme, and the anti-war theme was hugely popular with the American youth who were protesting the American intervention in Vietnam.


Fear of Flying, Erica Jong (1973)

A writer of erotic poetry, Isadora Zelda Wing, has an affair with another man while on holiday with her husband. Like The Group, this went down a storm with the revolutionary feminists, and Jong’s still-popular novel also managed to insert a few choice phrases into our sexual lexicon – the zipless f**k, anyone? Definitely one that ran contrary to the still rather stilted perceptions of female sexuality that the mainstream liked to promote, Fear of Flying was charting lonely waters.


The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novel back in ’69, and lit critic Harold Bloom rates it higher than Tolkien. Counter-cultural? Amidst the misogyny that generally characterizes mid-twentieth century science-fiction, then, yes, definitely – Le Guin’s work back then ploughed a significant trail for writers to come. And besides, the book’s brilliant: it’s got exile and murder and interplanetary exploration, and there are no gender divisions – surely, something for everybody!


Trout Fishing In America, Richard Brautigan (1967)

Probably the weirdest book of the lot, Trout Fishing helped establish Brautigan’s reputation for producing dreamy, peculiarly abstract texts that were yet immensely readable. It’s anecdotal and fragmentary and has a staggering legion of fans, two of whom allegedly named their baby ‘Trout Fishing In America’ – in the book, the title refers to everything from people to a hotel, and the whole thing is a send-up of mainstream US culture. Hint: if you liked this, you really have to read In Watermelon Sugar (1968), a novel set inside a commune who have a cabin called iDEATH. Brautigan – we salute you.



 One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey (1962)

Unjustly overshadowed by the blunter film version (which we also like, don’t worry), Cuckoo’s Nest is a critique of psychiatric practices, behaviorist psychology and general blind rule-following. It stars the antagonistic anti-hero, McMurphy, archetypal evil nurse Ratched, and the massive and silent Chief, Bromden, who both narrates the book and is inspired by McMurphy’s bold nature. In researching the text, Kesey visited psychiatric institutions and took a bunch of psychoactive drugs, including LSD. The whole thing is about critiquing coercive authority and pursuing individual freedom, and if that’s not counter-cultural, then – we ask you – what is?


Post Office, Charles Bukowski (1971)

Starring alcoholic and gambling addict Henry Chinaski, who spends the book suffering through a horrible job as a mail carrier and another as a mail clerk (Bukowski likely wouldn’t get a job advertising Royal Mail), Post Office is a sort-of autobiography, with Chinaski as Bukowski’s misfortunate reprobate alter-ego.  It does nothing to sell the virtues of a good old nine-to-five; it’s lurid and dirty and low-down; it’s everything a counter-cultural outpouring ought to be.

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Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (1993)

A sneaky latter-day addition (not to say there aren’t dozens of other fine contenders from back in the mid-century), Irvine Welsh’s debut is somewhere between a novel and a short story collection, featuring as memorable a cast of junkies and losers as we’ve seen outside a Hubert Selby Jr. book (Selby, of course, is another counter-cultural star). Trainspotting tells us to choose life, but the life it portrays is nasty, short and unhappy – and yet dazzlingly original in its use of dialect and grim Edinburgh settings. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll love the book, and here’s a word to the wise – try reading it aloud for maximum effect.


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These are our favourites, but tell us: which counter-cultural books have blown your mind?

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27 replies
  1. BC Rasta
    BC Rasta says:

    Ya forgot Stranger in a Strange Land !! It was the hippies bible in the 60’s..
    Heinlein was way ahead of everybody in ’59.

    • J. Matthew Phipps
      J. Matthew Phipps says:

      “Stranger” changed the course of my life. It was ’74, I was 12 and raised Mormon, reading the likes of Tolkein, Heinlein’s juvenile novels, “Rocketship Galileo”. The library had a “take one leave one” paperback rack and I was thrilled to find a thick Heinlein about a man who was raised by Martians. (Coincidental to that, I had also discovered the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd.) Within just a few months I knew the world was much different that I had been told.

      If I didn’t think it would start a revolution, I’d say it should be required reading in Junior High.

  2. Blackjackshellac
    Blackjackshellac says:

    Great list. Except for Fear of Flying. As a 14 year old boy in 1974 I could rarely get past the cover. Cuckoos nest is one of my favourites, more so than the film, dare I say, I loved the pharmaceutical clouded narration. Franny and Zooey is another of my faves, that I’m going to have to revisit soon.

    • J. Matthew Phipps
      J. Matthew Phipps says:

      At 14, ’76, I happened across a Mickey Spillane novel. I kept it under my mattress. “She wasn’t wet enough, so she licked her finger.” I didn’t know what that meant until much later. But, I knew it was nasty.

  3. Aaron
    Aaron says:

    Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Robbins and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig both deserve a place on the list.

  4. Czarl
    Czarl says:

    Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” will forever make me feel as though constant hunger, living day-to-day, and living off of any grid are truly reserved for paradise.

  5. Majnoona
    Majnoona says:

    Spinrad’s Child of Fortune! It follows a young woman’s wanderjahr through the planets of the Second Spacefaring age where spaceships are powered by female orgasms , and jungle planets are exploited for mind-altering drugs. Can’t get more counter-culture than that…

  6. Dr. Menlo
    Dr. Menlo says:

    Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

    The Fuck-Up, by Arthur Nersesian

    Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins

    A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

    Anything by Terry Southern

    Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach

    Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

    Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem

    Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

    Generation X, Douglas Coupland

    Neuromancer, by William Gibson

  7. Ben
    Ben says:

    I’m surprised even though it is a mainstream counter-culture book that On the Road wasn’t listed

  8. mary
    mary says:

    The Bell Jar, The Prophet, Steal this Book, On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Wisdom of Insecurity

  9. what?
    what? says:

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S Thompson

    This is one of the best books i have ever read! It is a real trip.

  10. Thermos
    Thermos says:

    Wow, really?

    This is a “decent” list, but I am very disappointed that you left off the most important book, in my humble opinion.

    Where is “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac?

    That book changed my life. I borrowed it from my local library and accidentally packed it away in my belongings when I moved away from home. That book is absolutely amazing. If any young person has that desire to drop out of society, even for a little while, and hit the road, this is your guidebook. Do yourself a favor and borrow it from the library.

    Or steal it. *grin*

  11. Gagsandflags
    Gagsandflags says:

    The first time I ever laughed out loud reading a book was when I was sitting in Battery Park reading Post Office. That book got me into books in a way I never had been before and I am a better man because of it. Thanks, Bukowski.

  12. Blockeddoubt
    Blockeddoubt says:

    Bill Burroughs junky, naked lunch, Khalil Gibran- spirits rebellious, the prophet, Tom Robbins- jitterbug perfume, Heinlein, Hoffman, Kafka, Camus, Nietzsche, Pynchon, Kerouac, Whitman, Coleridge, Ginsberg, and Palahniuk- fight club, choke, rant, invisible monsters, snuff, diary

  13. Elvis
    Elvis says:

    My definitive favorite must be “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. Having spent some time in mental institutions, I am sad to say that things have not changed too much since it was written. The Combine is alive and well, trying to make all the biggest men smaller.

  14. Yossarian
    Yossarian says:

    I’d add Catch 22, of course; and I suppose Carlos Casteneda and RD Laing – William Reich too – Marshal McCluhan


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