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cities of the plain

And so The Border Trilogy – Cormac McCarthy’s sprawling coming-of-age epic set in the Southwest and Mexico – comes to a close. In All The Pretty Horses young John Grady Cole leaves home with a friend and throws himself deep into an impossible relationship in a dangerous land. And in The Crossing we are introduced to Billy Parham, whose multiple crossings into the unforgiving country of Mexico leave him battling his inner demons and chasing the ghosts of his past for years to come.

There were grounds in the bottom of the cup and he swirled the cup and looked at them. Then he swirled them the other way as if he’d put them back the way they’d been.

Cities Of The Plain sees these two cowboys together, working on a ranch in New Mexico. In 1952 John Grady Cole is twenty, Billy Parham twenty-eight. They are brothers and friends, working amongst other brothers and friends. Life is good on the ranch, for these two still enjoy and revel in the cowboy life and the old ways of the west, ways which are not long for their world or time. Billy has matured and his experience in the years that have passed stand him in good stead for the harshness of the West. He looks out for John Grady as he used to look out for his brother Boyd, whom he lost in The Crossing. John Grady remains a romantic, enthusiastic chasing his passions with optimism and hope. During a visit to a whorehouse he spots a young girl, Magdalena. She is beautiful and John Grady has fallen for her. Boy, he sure knows how to pick them. For Magdalena not only is a whore, but she is epileptic and her health frail, and the owner of The White Lake – the malicious and possessive Eduardo – is in love with her too.

border trilogy

I didn’t mean I’d seen everything, John Grady said.
I know you didn’t.
I just meant I’d seen some things I’d as soon not of.
I know it. There’s hard lessons in this world.
What’s the hardest?
I dont know. Maybe it’s just that when things are gone they’re gone. They aint comin back.
Yessir.

A tale is set in motion by an author with a masterful, mystical grip on the language. John Grady’s justifcation for his hearts wants, his anxiety waiting for his girl to make it out of Mexico and the clutches of evil, his desperation and despair as he realises he has lost her. Magdalena, murdered at the command of Eduardo, who is unable to allow her to leave to have a different life, to have happiness with another man.

Eduardo as a villain is sophisticated malevolence in the small glimpses we get but in the final act we see extended dialogue from him, to both Billy and John Grady. His jealousy and innate desire for superiority over his rivals builds to a brutal climax with a tense knife fight that sees Eduardo taunting and playing with John Grady, the two intertwined in a ritualistic dance to the death with John Grady the narrow victor.

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When John Grady took his plate to the sideboard and went out it was just breaking day. The old man was still sitting at the table in his hat. He’d been born in east Texas in eighteen sixty-seven and come out to this country as a young man. In his time the country had gone from the oil lamp and the horse and buggy to jet planes and the atomic bomb but that wasnt what confused him. It was the fact that his daughter was dead that he couldnt get the hang of.

Cities Of The Plain in comparison to its predecessors is dialogue heavy. Of course there are still wonderful passages of McCarthy’s meandering prose, but in this book the pace seems quicker due to the increased talk between ranch owners and ranch hands and friends and prospective horse sellers and Mexican street vendors and perhaps, because of the inescapable feeling that this vaquero lifestyle is doomed for all that continue to live it so impassionately. The emotional weight of the conclusion between these two characters is tragic but in a way fitting. With the world changing around them a man like John Grady needs to adapt to survive, something that he and his ruthless idealism are ultimately unable to do.

When you’re a kid you have these notions about how things are goin to be, Billy said. You get a little older and you pull back some on that. I think you just wind up tryin to minimize the pain. Anyway this country aint the same. Nor anything in it. The war changed everthing. I dont think people even know it yet.

The epilogue of the book (and the trilogy) sees Billy Parham at 78, an aged vagabond, travelling through America to nowhere in particular, with hands ‘gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it’. He has a meandering conversation with a man he believes to be Death about dreams, and dreams within dreams, and the whole ordeal leaves him thoroughly confused. Finally, Billy questions his identity, his purpose, his life, to a kind woman who takes him in; she assures him that she does know him, and to go to sleep. Perhaps in the release of consciousness and the escape of dreams Billy can finally rest.

He sat a long time and he thought about his life and how little of it he could ever have foreseen and he wondered for all his will and all his intent how much of it was his doing.

I can’t recommend these books enough.

the crossing

Published in 1994 The Crossing is the second book in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and while it shares no plotlines or characters from the first entry All The Pretty Horses, its essence of adventure and the realisations of the harshness of the world remain key themes.

I fell in love with All The Pretty Horses. Emotionally strong and wrought with poetic and romantic prose. The Crossing is superbly written too, as you would expect from McCarthy, but longer in length and arguably a more challenging and potentially more polarising book. Not yet approaching the bleak and impossible worlds of The Road and Blood Meridian, McCarthy shows us a melancholic journey which shows heart and beauty with brutality and cruelty.

The first part of The Crossing is as close to perfection as I’ve encountered in literature. Sixteen year old Billy Parham captures a large wolf that has been ravaging cattle on his family’s ranch. Rather than killing it, he decides to take it on a perilous journey to return it home across the border, in the mountains of Mexico. Parham’s motives for this are never explicitly stated, but in the wolf he sees nature: ancient, pure, unbridled, inexplicable.

He woke all night with the cold. He’d rise and mend back the fire and she was always watching him. When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alkahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it. He wrapped himself in the blanket and watched her. When those eyes and the nation to which they stood witness were gone at last with their dignity back into their origins there would perhaps be other fires and other witnesses and other worlds otherwise beheld. But they would not be this one.

He develops a bond, In attempting to return the wolf to a place beyond man’s reach and influence, he devastatingly realises that there is no such place. He is unable to protect the wolf, or save her, when the wolf is taken into the custody of a hacendado, whose men force the wolf to fight their dogs for sport and entertainment. Billy, who has already risked his life for the wolf, pleads for the release of the wolf. He speaks to her during her confinement, promises that he will free her and take her home. But he can’t. The men of the haicenda ignore Billy and the wolf fights for her life, heavily wounded and exhausted, defeats several dogs. Finally Billy does the only thing he can.

He stepped over the parapet and walked toward the wolf and levered a shell into the chamber of the rifle and halted ten feet from her and raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the bloodied head and fired.

The book title refers not to the crossing of the border between the US and Mexico, although that return trip does occur three times within the novel. The Crossing conveys a young boy’s passage into manhood. When Billy pulls the trigger, mercifully killing the wolf, he changes. The world around him changes, viewed with older eyes and a stronger heart. He returns to his home to discover his parents murdered and their horses stolen into Mexico by Indians. His younger brother Boyd, cannot understand the world and its unreserved cruelty as Billy can.

He looked up. His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy not of fact or incident or event but of the way the world was.

They go back into Mexico, together, in an attempt to retain a sense of their family and their belongings, to track down the horses. Billy is cautious for he knows how dangerous the task is. Boyd is troubled and stubborn, and the relationship between the two brothers is strained. Billy reaches out to Boyd frequently, desperate to protect him but Boyd resists. In an argument with bandits Boyd is shot through the chest by bandits, nearly killing him. When he eventually is nursed back to health, he disappears into the heart of Mexico with a local girl, leaving Billy to make his way back alone.

border trilogy

Throughout his journey Billy travels through country, small towns, mountains, meets with Mexicans, Indians, the aged and the young. Bandits, vaqueros, gerentes, hermanos. The second half of the book can become a little bogged down in retelling of stories from years ago, some of them almost Biblical in nature and spanning pages and pages, but the allegorical feel to these storytellers is compelling and mystical.

A mormon priest converted to Catholicism living in solitude within a collapsed church surrounded by cats.

Such a man is like a dreamer who wakes from a dream of grief to a greater sorrow yet. All that he loves is now become a torment to him. The pin has been pulled from the axis of the universe. Whatever one takes one’s eye from threatens to flee away. Such a man is lost to us. He moves and speaks. But he is himself less than the merest shadow among all that he beholds. There is no picture of him possible. The smallest mark upon the page exaggerates his presence.

A blind man, living with his wife in a remote shack who had his eyes sucked out of their sockets by a large German captain.

He said that the notion that evil is seldom rewarded was greatly overspoken for if there were no advantage to it then men would shun it and how could virtue then be attached to its repudiation?

An elderly woman praying in a church, the cemetry of which holds in an unmarked grave the bones of his younger brother, which Billy aims to take back home wherever that may be.

She prayed for all. She would pray for him.

Gracias.

No puedo hacerlo de otro modo.

He nodded. He knew her well enough, this old woman of Mexico, her sons long dead in that blood and violence which her prayers and her prostrations seemed powerless to appease. Her frail form was a constant in that land, her silent anguishings. Beyond the church walls the night harbored a millennial dread panoplied in feathers and the scales of royal fish and yet fed upon the children still who could say what worse wastes of war and torment and despair the old woman’s constancy might not have stayed, what direr histories yet against which could be counted at last nothing more than her small figure bent and mumbling, her crone’s hands clutching her beads of fruitseed. Unmoving, austere, implacable. Before just such a God.

Wild indians living deep in the sierras who feed him and wash him and repair his clothes.

He told the boy that although he was huerfano still he must cease his wanderings and make for himself some place in the world because to wander in this way would become for him a passion and by this passion he would become estranged from men and so ultimately from himself. He said that the world could only be known as it existed in men’s hearts. For while it seemed a place which contained men it was in reality a place contained within them and therefore to know it one must look there and come to know those hearts and to do this one must live with men and not simply pass among them. He said that while the huerfano might feel that he no longer belonged among men he must set this feeling aside for he contained within him a largeness of spirit which men could see and that men would wish to know him and that the world would need him even as he needed the world for they were one. Lastly he said that while this itself was a good thing like all good things it was also a danger.

These conversations are often long and full of symbolism, like parables that Billy must chew on as he makes his way through this devastated country. With many contrasting opinions – there are those that embrace God, there are those that reject Him, there are those that believe in fate and those in free will, in good, in evil – it can be confusing as to what Billy, or McCarthy truly believes. Reflecting on the “Unmoving, austere, implacable” God at the end of the novel and it would appear that nihilism, with its notions of absurd and senseless life, have taken hold.

The last passage of the book sees Billy alone, drifting without direction. He takes shelter in an abandoned barn and encounters a badly injured dog, looking for shelter. Billy angrily shoos the dog away. In the morning he is remorseful and cries for the dog but the dog has gone. From the innocent, youthful bond with the wolf, it shows how far Billy has come. How far he has fallen. Moving and heartbreaking in a way that McCarthy can capture so well, beautiful yet impossibly sad.

It had ceased raining in the night and he walked out on the road and called for the dog. He called and called. Standing in that inexplicable darkness. Where there was no sound anywhere save only the wind. After a while he sat in the road. He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept. He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.

atphq1

God. Is that not just beautiful?

All The Pretty Horses is a departure from the Cormac McCarthy I’m used to. Having read Blood Meridian, Child of God and The Road, arguably three of his darkest works (excluding Outer Dark, which I am yet to read), I was surprised at how passionately I read this book, far more a tale of romance and growing up then the violence and depravity I’ve more commonly associated with him.

All The Pretty Horses tells us the story of John Grady Cole, a sixteen year old ranch hand who decides to leave his home of San Antonio, Texas, after the ranch he was brought up on is sold due to the death of his grandfather. Along with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they cross the border into Mexico with aspirations to become cowboys.

. . .he repeated what his father had once told him, that scared money can’t win and a worried man can’t love.

Along the way they meet Jimmy Blevins, a younger boy who claims he is older, riding an immaculate horse that John Grady and Rawlins know isn’t his, despite the young boys’ assertions to the contrary. Initially dubious of Blevins’ intentions, together they continue to travel into Mexico, until one night a storm terrifies Blevin’s and he loses his horse and his clothes and his distinctive Colt pistol.

You afraid of lightnin? said John Grady.

I’ll be struck sure as the world…

It runs in the family, said Blevins. My grandaddy was killed in a minebucket in West Virginia it run down in the hole a hunnerd and eighty feet to get him it couldnt even wait for him to get to the top.

Blevins’ takes his horse back by force, leading to the three being chased into the mountains by the locals and eventually the Mexican Rangers. Blevins splits from John Grady and Rawlins and leads the pursuers away. Grady and Rawlins travel further south and eventually discover a great ranch within the Bolsón de Cuatro Ciénegas where they are employed as ranch hands.

alltheprettyhorses

While initially their lives seem idyllic, trouble soon catches them. Upon noticing Grady’s intentions on Alejandra, her great aunt has the two boys arrested and taken into custody by Mexican Rangers (who had previously been sighted near the haicenda, searching for the Americans) and thrown into a dismal and corrupted Mexican prison, alongside the beaten and near crippled Blevins.

Blevins shot and killed a man in retrieving his horse and Colt, and en route to a larger prison Grady and Rawlins can only watch helplessly as he is taken away and executed. While incararated, the two are beaten and savagely attacked by the other inmates until they are released on account of Alejandra’s aunt-with whom Alejandra struck a deal to free the boys with the condition that Alejandra can never see John Grady again.

They do meet again – Grady persuades her to meet him in Zacatecas, for only one night. She refuses Grady’s marriage proposal with regret, stating she must keep her promise to her family, and leaves heartbroken. Grady, devastated, makes his way back to Texas, but not before returning to the corrupt Mexican captain who killed Blevins, taking him prisoner as he retrieves the horses of Rawlins and Blevins and his own.

It’s an enthralling story that allows itself to slow down and absorb the details, the nuances, the emotions of the characters, and dialogue is for the most part short and succinct. Yet McCarthy can still make it effortlessly clear what these characters are thinking and feeling.

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.

John Grady Cole helps in this respect. The 16 year old protagonist is ruthlessly relatable. His calmness and sense and knowledge of the world he loves, and how it changes through loss and sorrow and heartbreak, is so engrossing. The rash decisions in the final act, a reaction to the cruelty and unfair nature of life, leading to a redemptive conversation with a judge after a trial for ownership of Blevins’ horse, is just perfect.

I guess what I wanted to say first of all was that it kindly bothered me in the court what you said. It was like I was in the right about everything and I dont feel that way.

What way do you feel?

He sat looking at his hat. He sat for a long time. Finally he looked up. I dont feel justified, he said.

The judge watched him. Son, he said, you strike me as somebody that maybe tends to be a little hard on theirselves. I think from what you told me you done real well to get out of there with a whole hide Maybe the best thing to do might be just to go on and put it behind you. My daddy used to tell me not to chew on something that was eatin you.

At sixteen John Grady Cole has fallen in love, become heartbroken, been arrested, watched a young man die, thrown into jail, been stabbed and nearly killed, killed a man in self defence. A loss of innocence, he crosses back across the US-Mexican border a man.

He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led to nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave.

There will be people who won’t like this book, nor McCarthy’s polysyndetonic style. I’ve read criticism aimed at McCarthy for his over-the-top, verbose description, and slow moving plots. But it is a style that McCarthy does so well. I am utterly infatuated with his prose, and where others may see tedious, drawn-out inconsequential actions, I hang on every word.

All The Pretty Horses is a great American novel. The romanticism present is a change to the rest of his bibliography but it is still vintage McCarthy, writing so effortlessly on love and loss and what it means to truly grow up.

Note: I haven’t been too happy with how I’ve dealt with quotes in my posts recently. You may have noticed the opening quote; I like the idea of using a standout quote as a graphic to start a post. I also think using blockquotes (see below) is better than my previous method of simply emboldening the quotes to separate them from my main text. Any feedback or advice would be greatly appreciated.

It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God-who knows all that can be known-seems powerless to change.

Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.

I knew little of Flannery O’Connor and her work prior to reading The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor was a female, Roman Catholic author born in 1925 and raised in southern USA. I was shocked to see she had died at the age of 39 after battling lupus, having written just two novels along with a handful of short stories and other works. This novel appeared to centre on a conflict between devout religion and destiny and the secular, focusing very much on O’Connor’s own religious beliefs, and before starting the novel I was a little perplexed as to why I had picked this book, out of all potential candidates, as my next read.

flannery o'connor

Initially, I think I picked this book out because the protagonist, Francis Marion Tarwater, is a teenager and I have been working on an idea which features a young male protagonist. She has also been described as a Southern Gothic writer, much like my favoured author Cormac McCarthy; that was as far as my reasoning went for reading this book. I began to question my choice; while The Violent Bear It Away seemed to be well received and regarded highly in most literary circles, so far it wasn’t sounding like a book I’d typically go for. Anyway, I digress. I did end up reading the book and I was rewarded by a piece of work that clouded my senses with the passion and fury within.

There is a power within O’Connor’s writing. It is forceful and brash, uncomfortably so at times. This novel is dark, it’s heavy and unsettling and the inner demons that tear at these characters can be difficult to digest. There is some humour and satirical elements as you might expect from such conflicting world views and O’Connor clearly observes passion and compassion and the dark voices that threaten to consume her characters whole.

The introduction itself (the quote at the top of the page is the novel’s excellent first sentence) is wonderful and immediately reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Southern stylings, instantly making an impression on you and the sort of story you’re in for. We are introduced to the young boy Tarwater, just a teenager, who sits at the breakfast table with his great-uncle whom has just there died. Abducted at a young age by the devout, self proclaimed prophet, his great-uncle is a booming, fanatically religious figure who teaches Tarwater the values of redemption and God and the significance of achieving salvation, with his goal to have the boy replace him and become a prophet in his wake.

book cover

But upon being freed of the shackles of his great-uncle, following in his footsteps is hard to do. Tarwater is being allowed to think for himself, possibly for the first time in his life, and his natural rebellious instinct is to go against everything his late great-uncle strived so hard to instill within him.

The voice was loud and strange and disagreeable

Tarwater becomes aware of a second version of himself; perhaps an internal monologue of his own thoughts, or even a manifestation of the devil, tempting him away from his destiny. Either way, this second voice plagues and fills the young boy with doubts throughout the novel.

Tarwater’s monumental struggle is between the path of a prophet that his great-uncle set out for him, and to eventually baptise the retarded son of Tarwater’s uncle, and old Tarwater’s nephew, Rayber. Rayber is a schoolteacher and represents the opposite of the boy and the great-uncles sacred views. It is the conflict between the boy Tarwater and his uncle Rayber that forms the main narrative with The Violent Bear It Away, with the lure of a more modern, rational approach to life that Rayber is so keen to impress on him.

He knew that he was the stuff of which fanatics and madmen are made and that he had turned his destiny as if with his bare will. He kept himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness and when the time came for him to lose his balance he intended to lurch toward emptiness and fall on the side of his choice. Rayber’s philosphy on his life and the taint that Old Tarwater left on him as a young boy.

theviolentbearitaway

And such is the conflict, that the reader is not necessarily encouraged to take sides. Perhaps O’Connor was trying to define some middle ground between the devout and the secular, but as no character personifies this middle ground, it is left for the two opposites, the extremes of their kind, to battle against each other. If anything, it would seem that the destiny Tarwater’s great uncle lays forth for him to follow is too strong, whereas Rayber struggles to rationalise the stubborn scowling entity that is this young boy.

There are long stretches of recalled memories and deep descriptions of character, and after every setback or victory O’Connor deconstructs and builds them up again, and we witness and feel it all. As Tarwater’s journey progresses there is an impending sense that his destiny is unavoidable, as we realise his uncle’s actions have set him on his way and there is no turning back. In the final act he falls to temptation, taking part in a baptism-murder, and he is redeemed as he sets the forest to flames.

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood. Tarwater’s awakening and redemption, accepting his path as a prophet as his great-uncle intended.

The Violent Bear It Away is a superbly rich novel, written by a talented author in O’Connor who unfortunately taken far too young. Her writing is unapologetically robust and the themes she takes on, much after her own heart and beliefs, ask intimidating questions on existentialism and belief and individuality within the human condition.

It’s rare that a work of fiction can have intertwine inherent brutality and horror with startling and delicate beauty. The Road, the 2006 novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy, is a masterpiece indeed.

Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

A man and his son travel through the wasteland of a charred and ruined America. A cartful of supplies and meaningless possession and each other. An unnamed catastrophe, some apocalyptic event has left the Earth a dead husk and McCarthy documents the man and the boy on their harrowing trek to the coast and further south, in the hope they will find less harsh winters, a source of food and more ‘good guys’. On their journey they scavenge abandoned towns and houses for anything salvageable while making discreet fires at night to keep warm. The threat of starvation and the cold keep them moving while they attempt to remain hidden from cannibalistic bloodthirsty tribes that ravage near extinct life.

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The cause of the end of civilisation and the death of the world is never explicitly stated or explained but subtlety remembered by the man and hinted at within his thoughts. An event at least a decade before the book takes place has destroyed the world as we know it. Animals are extinct, crops are dead and don’t grow, the earth is strangled by ash that hides the sky and the sun. The vast majority of mankind is dead, left to rot in the cities or the countryside or wherever they fell. Those that survive are either good guys or bad guys.

The man and the boy, the father and the son. We never learn their names and apart from sparse understated and often tense interactions with other people on the road, they are the only characters in the book. They are the good guys. After a confrontation where a man pulls a knife and tries to take the boy, the man is forced to shoot him dead.

He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

Yes. We’re still the good guys.

And we always will be.

Yes. We always will be.

Okay.

And they carry the fire – an expression for hope, for goodness and morality. They do not steal from or kill the living, unless they absolutely have to. They do not eat human flesh, no matter how starving and skeletal they become. They are moving south, away from the inevitable death of another winter, with no real motives other than surviving.

The man also has the unenviable task of trying to instill morals into a boy who has only ever known this hell. He has heard stories of what the world used to be like, of nature and beauty and love, but none of that he can visualise on this earth he walks upon. And while the man is keen to reinforce that they are the good guys, there are difficult moments where he must put their lives first. They are the good guys, but the man is also a hardened survivalist who will do anything and risk nothing. The boy always wants to help, he always tries to see the good in people. But the things the man has seen and done to protect the only thing he lives for have made him tough, and this leads to some heartbreaking moments between the two.

He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.

He’s going to die anyway.

He’s so scared, Papa.

The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.

The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head down, sobbing.

You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.

He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

The relationship between the man and the boy is the glue. They are one another. They rely on each other. The man lives because the boy lives.

[The boy]: What would you do if I died?

[The man]:If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay.

Their dynamic is all of sweet, tragic, heartbreaking. Their dialogue is short and simple, and always flirts towards topics that the man knows they should not talk about, ideas that he does not want the boy to think about.

How would you know if you were the last man on Earth? He said.

I don’t guess you would know it. You’d just be it.

Nobody would know it.

It wouldn’t make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else died too.

The theatrical adaptation released in 2009 was a faithful adaptation. From pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/304767099759184167/

The theatrical adaptation released in 2009 was a faithful adaptation. From pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/304767099759184167/

McCarthy has never shied away from violence. I wrote about Child Of God back in January, which focuses on a homicidal necrophiliac as a protagonist. Blood Meridian, certainly one of my favourite novels of all time, describes one violent massacre of cruelty and debauchery to the next.

The Road too, deals with troublesome times. It is not concerned with the apocalypse, the whys and hows of it. Simply put, that doesn’t matter – it’s not important. What McCarthy describes in horrifying beauty (a skill indeed) is a landscape dead and man, devolved to such a point where rape and cannibalism is the fear for the ‘good guys’.

An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. [. . .] The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. [. . .] Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illcothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on. They lay listening.

Are they gone, Papa?

Yes, they’re gone.

Did you see them?

Yes.

Were they the bad guys?

Yes, they were the bad guys.

Avoiding starvation and freezing to death is only half the battle. Devolved monsters who have survived by carrying out despicable acts and ruling over the weak. The above quote hints at slavery, caravans that walk across the country looking for any other survivors to enslave.

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

And the insinuation the passage above gives is scarier than anything I’ve ever read, watched, hell experienced in any form of media. We are given a glimpse into what some people are willing to do, and perhaps think they have been forced to do, in order to etch out life and survive during these end times.

For me The Road is compelling and breathtaking. When a writer has a level of mastery of language and storytelling that McCarthy does, the scenarios covered can be violent and despicable, yet still a work of art and elegance. It just works. Their struggle is real.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee play the man and the boy respectively in the film adaptation. http://fanpix.famousfix.com/picture-gallery/viggo-mortensen-picture-14375239.htm

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee play the man and the boy respectively in the film adaptation. http://fanpix.famousfix.com/picture-gallery/viggo-mortensen-picture-14375239.htm

You feel the cold as the rain starts to beat down on their tarp. You feel their hunger as they rut around in the dirt and ashes of another abandoned house to find nothing but empty tins and rotting meat. You feel their fear as a party of cannibals rumbles past, wagons being pulled by slaves and victims destined to become their sustenance. It is depressingly bleak, and sometimes the brutality of this hopelessness winds you. As a reader, it can be punishing. Questions raised that one shudders to ponder and dares to consider answering.

I wish I was with my mom.

He didnt answer. He sat beside the small figure wrapped in the quilts and blankets. After a while he said: You mean you wish that you were dead.

Yes.

You musnt say that.

But I do.

Dont say it. It’s a bad thing to say.

I cant help it.

I know. But you have to.

How do I do it?

I dont know.

The man is frequently forced to consider whether this suffering, this existence is worth it. His wife clearly did not think so. Having seen the horrors awaiting she takes suicide over being rape and murdered and eaten.

Will you tell him goodbye?

No. I will not.

Just wait till morning. Please.

I have to go.

She had already stood up.

For the love of God, woman. What am I to tell him?

I cant help you.

Where are you going to go? You cant even see.

I dont have to.

He stood up. I’m begging you, he said.

No. I will not. I cannot.

She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself.

And she leaves him and the boy, alone. The discussion on suicide had been made, clearly. He had taught the wife and he had taught the boy on what to do. But he couldn’t do it, not while there was hope and not while there was still the boy.

They trekked out along the crescent sweep of beach, keeping to the firmer sand below the tidewrack. They stood, their clothes flapping softly. Glass floats covered with a gray crust. The bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulchre. Senseless. Senseless.

Anyone familiar with McCarthy’s writing will not be surprised how he makes the dead earth so believable. The way in which he glides through landscapes is metaphoric poetry.

Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

And while we spend the short days and long cold nights with these two survivors, through daydreams and nightmares the man recalls how the world used to be. The beauty that is now so long gone and forgotten it is a sadistic joke almost best erased from the mind entirely.

Lying under such a myriad of stars. The sea’s black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different.

Pain when the memory fades, and we are confronted with the truth, the here and now. All there ever has been replaced by the reality of all there ever will be.

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

And so you can understand and rationalise the reasoning behind the man when he tells the boy;

Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.

You forget some things, dont you?

Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

Yes, there is a horrid bleakness to the so-called ‘existence’ that the boy and the man are living. It hits you like a tonne of bricks. It’s like a living hell. It’s easy to label the book as depressing. But it reaffirms how beautiful our world is, to appreciate what we have, and in retrospect gives true importance to our world. This is what McCarthy does so fantastically. He reinforces how beautiful our world is by creating something utterly terrifying, putting characters we care about and sympathise with in unimaginable situations.

the road 2009 3

There is an eloquent warning within. A post 9/11 plea for peace or a warning of the dangers of climate change? Or simply a book about faith, love, never giving up in the face of insurmountable odds. McCarthy is believed to have said that the book was dedicated to his son, a love letter to him so to speak. Perhaps that’s what the The Road truly is. Not science fiction, or horror, but a love story.

You have to carry the fire.

I don’t know how to.

Yes, you do.

Is the fire real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.

Wahey! January, the month in which depression, suicide and crushed dreams are at an all time high (unconfirmed data), is out of the way for another year. Now February is here to ensure we remain cold, wet and miserable for another four weeks. In case you hadn’t noticed, winter is not a season I’m fond of.

December isn’t too bad. You’ve got the run up to Christmas and New Year and the parties to keep you sane. But then January brings in the realisation that you are another year older and still a useless dickhead. On top of that, it’s really bloody cold and everyone keeps ranting on about new year, new me. As well as the sickening knowledge that this will be par for the course for the next three months. I’m all about the summer. I have more energy, I’m more sociable, I’m more active, I look better, I feel better. If we can all pull through February and March, it’ll soon be in spring and before you know it summer will be upon us. I’m already planning to use as many of my 25 days of holiday in order to take best advantage of the warm summer months as I can.

As my posts recently have been very text-heavy, here’s a lovely picture of my Croatian adventure last summer. More sunny times soon please.

Desperately trying not to forget times like these.

Desperately trying not to forget times like these.

Anyway, this is just a bit of an update really. My job is still going really well and I passed my probation just before Christmas. I’m heading to London next weekend to visit a few mates so that should be a laugh and raise my spirits. My ‘aims’ for the coming months, as I covered in a post just after new year, are going fairly well. I’m reading a lot more; January saw me finish Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and The Thing On The Doorstep and other weird stories by H.P Lovecraft, and there’s plenty of material I want to get read in the coming months. I’m also writing as often as I can and this blog remains pretty active. I’ve been trying to add a post every week or so; depending on how much I’ve got on at the time, it might be more or less frequent. Don’t ask about the gym though.

Another side project I’ve taken on is to teach myself to use Corel Painter. It’s a digital media/art based software in which drawings and paintings can be created. I’ve bought a graphics tablet to accompany it, and while I’ve got extensive experience using the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop/Illustrator/Indesign) due to my degree in architecture, a program like Corel is very new to me. I’ll write about this in more detail in a separate post, but I’m very excited and have some ideas I’m looking forward to trying out.

So yeah, that’s me right now.

Cormac McCarthy is one of my favourite writers and Child of God (1973) was his 3rd novel. At only 208 pages long it is a short but harrowing read that I ended up finishing over the course of a weekend. I had to keep coming back to it, to McCarthy’s masterful writing style and his horribly flawed, highly disturbed yet ultimately compelling protagonist Lester Ballard.

Child of God follows Ballard in 1960s Tennessee, a violent and disturbed outcast who is shunned by society and throughout the course of the novel descends into more despicable crimes and degradation.

Firstly, Lester Ballard is not a nice person. We are introduced to his fiery temper from the start, threatening at gunpoint an auctioneer who is attempting to sell his family’s homestead. A squatter who has clearly not spent much time around people, Ballard is deranged and as the unknown narrator states, ‘a child of God much like yourself perhaps.’

Child of God

A parentless child (who came home to his father hanging, and his mother abandoned him soon after), Lester learnt how to survive but not how to socialise. Steering clear from the more civilised aspects of life, we see Ballard as he drags his meagre belongings from house to house, squatting and sleeping rough while feeding on scraps. Whilst a voyeur to a couple having sex in a car, ‘Ballard, unbuttoned, spent himself on the fender.’ Upon discovery, Ballard flees, ‘a misplaced and loveless simian shape scuttling across the turnaround as he had come’. Unable to commit to normal relationships, he lives a lonely existance. Even when he finds himself surrounding by people, winning three large stuffed animals in a shooting gallery at the town fair, he can only focus on the faces of young girls while fireworks dance above the crowd. Disturbed and repulsive as Lester is, I felt some sympathy for him.

That was until the start of Act II, where Ballard stumbles across the bodies of a young couple in the back seat of an abandoned car. A fascinatingly disturbing scene follows, in which Ballard leaves the car but ends up returning again and again; it is money that brings him back initially, but in a shocking account of sexual deviancy, the disturbed Ballard commits the sickening act of necrophilia. Be warned, the following quotes are incredibly disturbing. “A crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse. He poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman. Who could say she did not hear him?”

Having dragged the girl’s corpse back to his current dwellings and hauling her into the acting (with some difficulty), he then goes into town and spends the money he stole from the dead couple to buy dresses and underwear for the girl, as well as food for a fancy meal. Lester loses this ‘first love’ when the house he is squatting in burns to the ground. With his extensive knowledge of Frog Mountain and the surrounding Servier County, he moves his belongings into a system of caves, and takes action. He creates new partners for his unspeakable relationships by carrying out a series of murders of young women, shooting them with his rifle and carrying them back to his subterranean dwelling.

The novel often follows Ballard alone. Interactions with others are rare and when they do occur tend to disturb and unsettle you, leaving you cold. Ballard has undoubtedly led a cruel and isolated life. I won’t go into detail of the novel’s conclusion, but we see Lester continue his decline. After the Servier County Sherriff suspects Ballard of murder and arson of a local household, he is taken into the station. While they are unable to prosecute, they know they are dealing with a sordid man with little humanity left. An almost desperate but futile attempt to speak to Lester, and a quote that I stuck with me.

‘Ballard, he said. You are either going to have to find some other way to live or some other place in the world to do it in.’ Ballard does not fit into modern society; and by this point the reader knows he is too far gone for there to be any redemption for this character.

No matter how dark the scene or despicable Ballard’s actions, McCarthy paints it in such a way that it evokes compassion for the deeply flawed protagonist. This novel is extremely difficult to read in parts, and I expect its grotesque events have put of many a reader. But as a character study there are few as compelling, tragic and repulsive as Lester Ballard in Child of God.