The Best Novels About Being Broke

I know this is a repost, but now that we have a shit ton more readers, I’d love to hear your suggestions for other books about being broke.

Charles Bukowski, patron saint of all broke-asses, doing his thing.

Charles Bukowski, patron saint of all broke-asses, doing his thing.

Almost all of us have figured out a way to legitimize our brokenness to ourselves. Whether you’re an aspiring artist, a starving student, an underpaid idealist, just got laid off, or simply can’t hold down a regular job, you’ve found a way to explain to yourself (and everyone else) why you are where you are. That’s why I put together the following list of the best novels about being broke. Sure some of them romanticize brokeitude as something bohemian, but hell, Jack London said it best when he mused, “You look back and see how hard you worked and how poor you were, and how desperately anxious you were to succeed, and all you can remember is how happy you were.”

Some of these aren’t romantic at all, they’re just good books about really poor people. Regardless, if you’re broke there’s no better way of entertaining yourself than reading a book; you can borrow all of these for free from the library.

Note: This list is by no way complete. I urge you to leave comments and suggestions for other great broke-ass novels, especially all the good ones written by women that I neglected to include.

"You want more? You better dance for that shit!"

The Adventures of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (published in serial from 1837-1839)

This book single handedly made it ok for grubby little orphans to express themselves through song and dance.  Or was that the movie? Either way, I still think Dickens writes like an asshole.  Judge for yourself by reading his complete works for FREE here.

I think this guy sleeps on my doorstep

I think this guy sleeps on my doorstep

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890)

The original starving artist novel, Hunger is all about well, starving artistically.  The main character wanders around, obsessing about food, while slowing losing his mind.  He refuses to take on a regular job and would rather starve than earn money not creating art.  Basically imagine what Williamsburg or The Mission would be like if people’s parent’s weren’t paying their bills.  It’s a frightening thought.

Why does this book cover suck so much?

Why does this book cover suck so much?

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Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

George Orwell flirts with bohemian life while washing dishes in Paris and tramping around London.  He doesn’t let on about this too much, but despite being an “artist” his parents float him money when he needs it.  This sets an obvious precedent.  Luckily, if you’re too lazy to go to the library you can always read George Orwell’s complete work for FREE here. Sweet right?

Nothing screams banned book like crabs.

Nothing screams "banned book" like crabs.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)

Ditching his wife in Brooklyn, Henry Miller lands himself in Paris and lives off other people’s kindness…yeah, he becomes a bum, er uh, a struggling writer.Considered ground breaking for it’s use of stream of consciousness (which is actually quite annoying in this case) Tropic of Cancer is also considered revolutionary for it’s graphic and visceral descriptions of sex. It wasn’t even allowed to be published in the US until 1961. This book pretty much paved the way for all the foul mouthed and dirty minded writers who’ve come since.

Talk about sour grapes...

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1938)

The Great Depression was really depressing. The only thing even remotely worth romanticizing in this book is when a starving man gets breast fed, and that’s just weird.

mmmm...looks pulpy.

mmmm...looks pulpy.

Ask the Dust by John Fante (1939)

Probably John Fante’s most successful book (and by successful, I mean not very), Ask the Dust is about a young Italian-American, Arturo Bandini, who moves to LA during the Depression to be a writer. He of course struggles with his art, then meets a hot Mexican girl, and a series of bad things happen. Charles Bukowski considered Fante to be one of his favorite writers.

Neal and Jack helped make speed, weed, and doing the deed super cool.

Neal and Jack, totally gay for each other.

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On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

Jack meets Neal. Much hitchhiking, drinking, latent homoeroticism, Benzedrine, and hanky-panky occurs. Jack writes On the Road and includes the most famous (and probably only) roman candle metaphor ever. Bohemians are redefined as anyone who realizes that the only people for them are “the mad ones”.

Even the cover looks depressing

Even the cover looks depressing

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996)

Nothing romantic about this one. Frank McCourt’s childhood was fuuuuucked up!Personally, I had a great time in Limerick, Ireland (where the book takes place) andended up partying all night long with some local bartenders. Plus, I didn’t even get knifed, despite the town’s nickname of “Stab City”.

Hooray for clean dishes!

Hooray for clean dishes!

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Dishwasher by Pete Jordan (2007)

Well loved zinester Dishwasher Peter traveled around the country trying to wash dishes in all 50 states. This book tells his story and details all the strange and wonderful things that go along with being the world’s most famous dishwasher.Dishwasher Pete gives props to all his dish dog predecessors including George Orwell.

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Jesus.  Look at the road miles on these two.

Anything ever written by Charles Bukowski:

The patron saint of all broke-asses, outsiders, and losers, Bukowski wrote about life in starkly real terms through themes like sex, alcohol, prostitution, horse races, bar fights, and loneliness. Most of all, he wrote about Los Angeles. Despite being well known for his poetry and short stories, he also wrote six novels in his lifetime: Post Office (1971), Factotum (1975), Women (1978), Ham on Rye (1982), Hollywood(1989) and Pulp (1994). Women is my personal favorite and a good place to start if you’ve never read his work before.

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About the author

Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

I've been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle , "an SF cult hero": SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York, but to those familiar with my work, I'm just "that douchebag who writes books about cheap stuff and drinks a lot".

7 Comments

  1. Cheryl says:

    Nice list–thanks.

    FYI, you can read the Hamsun for free online here: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=8387

    And Dishwasher is available at the SF Public Library, NYPL, and probably lots of other public libs (library’s get new books every day–no reason to think they won’t have it because it was published 2 years ago!)

  2. stu says:

    Nice! Thanks for the heads up Cheryl! I’m glad you dig the list :)

  3. Erik Kolacek says:

    Very thorough (and extremely well thought-out) list!

    “Hunger” is a hard piece of writing to get through if you’ve ever been there. Jesus christ.

    Bukowski got me through one divorce and one hellishly painful job loss. When I die I hope I end up wherever he is so I can buy him a beer and say “thanks.”

  4. Michael Kohn says:

    Check out Going Postal, by Stephen Jaramillo. I read it ages ago but remember it to be pretty quality broke ass.

  5. Rich Dailey says:

    Add to the list my future autobiography… novelized.

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