Cormac McCarthy and I Have Drifted Apart

One of the many things I try to emphasize when teaching literature to young people is that what you think of a particular piece of literature says as much about you as it does the poem, short story, essay, or novel you are studying. The crystal clear example I like to discuss is in The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield visits his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, and sleeps over. Holden wakes up in the middle of the night to Mr. Antolini stroking his head gently. Sometimes I read the scene with the students in class or I assign it for homework so they can experience it in an environment completely comfortable for them. The issue is whether Mr. Antolini was behaving inappropriately with Holden or not.

To most of the students, it is clear that Mr. Antolini is a dirty old man, a drunk, a molester. I tell them I disagree, but that I completely understand them — that they might even be right. I tell them I disagree because I’m a father. Mr. Antolini married an older woman, had no children himself, had a friendship with Holden’s father, and it was clear that Holden admired Antolini deeply. What if Mr. Antolini took to Holden as if he were like a son to him? It is obvious throughout the novel that Holden and his father have a less than symbiotic relationship, so when another man shows affection for Holden, he isn’t sure how to handle it, except to run out of the apartment out of fear of being sexually assaulted. Who can blame him? And who can blame students for thinking this way? Every other news story is about another child abduction, assault, or molestation. There’s no shortage of ways adults are letting children down today.

So my perspective as a father of two (three soon) and a fan of Cormac McCarthy promised that The Road would be an interesting read. And it was, even though it was yet another anti-war novel. I spoke to a friend about this the other day, a friend I see once a week at a specific time, and I tried to articulate, barely succeeding, that I found it interesting to recognize that we are in a specific literary period right now. I’m not sure it can be labeled as narrowly as a “Lost Generation” or a “Beat Generation,” and it certainly couldn’t be classified as broadly as post-war literature, but there seems to be a real apocalyptic bent on literature, all seeming to work toward an anti-war end. Everything reads differently now, as if 9/11 tainted my literary palate. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Falling Man by Don DeLillo, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, and the aforementioned Cormac Mccarthy novel are obvious reminders that 9/11 is a permanent part of the American canon. The books that have changed for me after my palate was tainted are ones like Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.

I have read most of Cormac McCarthy’s work, and the spare, but rich, prose kept me picking up his books. He’s Ernest Hemingway without the literary range. This is an Oprah Winfrey Book, but I bought it anyway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Honestly, it must have been slim pickins this year for this book to win the Prize. If you ever meet a writer who says he’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, say “Big deal, dude…” because anyone can nominate himself for a Pulitzer. If he wins one, though, that’s pretty cool.

The structure of the narrative is sometimes painfully linear. The reader is thrown into the lives of a man and his son as they push a shopping cart filled with the last of their belongings through an ash-covered American landscape about a year after an unnamed apocalyptic catastrophe. They push on a few feet at a time, and most of the journey happens page by page, with only a few hints as to what their lives consisted of before America was reduced to a wasteland of ash-covered landscape, a steady falling of gray rain and snow, and bands of cannibalistic killers around every corner.

Their desire to get to the coast, presumably the west coast, is what propels the reader forward, if even an inch at a time. There were commendable elements of the writing. McCarthy made the mundane interesting, and heights of action in the plot jumped out at the reader without warning. There was no escalating Jaws music, then a flurry of action, and writing like this keeps a reader glued to the narrative, regardless of the pace it seems to be maintaining. Sometimes, though, the prose got monotonous:

He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again. Then he handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap back on and rummaged through the pack.

This kind of minutiae slowed the pace even more than already established. Change of pace is good, I suppose, but I thought McCarthy picked his spots decently at best. I expected better of him. Maybe, though, he tried not to pick spots at all, but instead allowed them to come almost randomly, to simulate the precariousness of the journey, and to disallow the reader to make assumptions or anticipate the plot. I am apt to believe this argument after reading passages like this one. The man and his son hear a truck of “bad guys” coming and have to duck into the woods until they pass.

They could hear the men talking. Hear them unlatch and raise the hood. He sat with his arm around the boy. Shh, he said. Shh. After a while they heard the truck begin to roll. Lumbering and creaking like a ship. They’d have no other way to start it save to push it and they couldn’t get it fast enough to start on that slope. After a few minutes it coughed and bucked and stopped again.

McCarthy has the reader entranced, focused on the success or failure of a simple conflict: men trying to get a truck started and rolling and away from the man and his son. It’s excellent writing, because of what comes in the next sentences:

He raised his head to look and coming through the weeds twenty feet away was one of their number unbuckling his belt. They both froze.

It’s what Mark Twain called “legerdemain,” the act of hand trickery, or showing your audience, in clear view, what you are doing with your left hand while your right hand is secretly working to present the surprise. The audience concentrates so much on the left hand, that they leave themselves open to an unanticipated possibility. The scene doesn’t end with the quote above, but I’ll let you discover the rest of it. Just know that there are a few of these moments in the book, and there isn’t an easy way to anticipate them.

In the end, though, there were more than a couple of elements in the writing that bothered me. I’ll put this entry out there and try to articulate them during the next week.

My pal Timothy Callahan inspires me. He’s the author of a smart and insightful book titled Grant Morrison: The Early Years, which is a literary analysis of the graphic novel and comic book master. I don’t really know how he did it, aside from being one of the closest readers and smartest people I know, but he wrote 100K words, then revised the book, in like two months. He must have really neglected his family. Hmmph, writers.

To continue a little bit on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road: There are three issues that need to be discussed, and while I feel like I can be argued away from two of them, McCarthy’s diction completely irritated me.

The Road as a father/son story is acceptable to me, even though I felt like the relationship between the father and son was a little cold. The dialogue was redundant, like the man and his son were little more than strangers to one another.

page 25, man and his son come upon the former childhood home of the father. Son starts:

Are we going in?
Why not?
I’m scared.
Dont you want to see where I used to live?
No.
It’ll be okay.
There could be somebody there.

Not a typo. McCarthy uses an apostrophe sometimes, other times not so much. Then page 27:

We should go, Papa. Can we go?
Yes. We can go.
I’m scared.
I know. I’m sorry.
I’m really scared.

Later, same page:

Shh. It’s okay.
What is it, Papa?
Shh. It’s all right.
I’m so scared.

page 38:

Is it cold?
Yes. It’s freezing.
Do you want to go in?
I dont know.
Sure you do.
Is it okay?
Come on.

next page, after climbing a trail:

It’s really far, he said.
It’s pretty far.
Would you die if you fell?
You’d get hurt. It’s a long way.
It’s really scary.

When McCarthy tired of the ’scary’ line of dialogue, he switched to the “good guys/bad guys” dialogue, which included an obscure inside dialogue between father and son about “carrying the fire.”

page 77:

Are we still the good guys?
Yes, we’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
Okay.

and page 83:

What is it, Papa?
Nothing. We’re okay. Go to sleep.
We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

The boy is scared on pages 108 and 113, “very scared” on page 134, then scared and really scared on page 189, when the dad quits the small talk and gets all existential on his son. Some narrative first:

One night the boy woke from a dream and would not tell him what it was.

You dont have to tell me, the man said. It’s all right.
I’m scared.
It’s all right.
No it’s not.
It’s just a dream.
I’m really scared.
I know.

The boy turned away. The man held him. Listen to me, he said.
What.
When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up. I won’t let you.

Huh?

The spare, redundant, vague dialogue worked better with his other books, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, for example. The books’ protagonists come upon strangers throughout the narratives, so the dialogue could be a bit more open-ended. But when the dialogue needed to be intimate, more familiar, without necessarily being sentimental, McCarthy did not deliver.

It’s fair to challenge my argument for The Road as an anti-war novel, but compelling evidence (to me) lies in what I consider the climactic scene of the story. The man and his son have just come back from looking for a vagabond the father initially shunned and abandoned. They couldn’t find him and presumed he wandered off naked and freezing — his death imminent. The boy is trying to convince his father the importance of finding the vagabond:

What do you want to do?
Just help him, Papa. Just help him.

The man looked back up the road.

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 bowed, sobbing.

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

The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.

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

On the surface the boy realizes that his father is going to die. He has broken down and admitted fear and has become the child, arguably.

The anti-war sentiment lies underneath the scene. When the boy says, “Yes, I am. I am the one,” McCarthy, now age 74, seems to tell us that we are in the process of leaving a wasteland to our children — that the adults of this world are setting up our future generations for great suffering. We think we’re miserable now? McCarthy seems to say, Just wait until our kids are faced with the carnage left over from what we’ve done to this planet…”

My final issue, because I actually am tired of writing about it at this point, is with McCarthy’s word choices. I know it’s important to get lost in the moment while you’re writing, but some of McCarthy’s riffs are more posturing than aesthetic:

He squatted and scooped up a handful of stones and smelled them and let them fall clattering. Polished round and smooth as marbles or lozenges of stone veined and striped. Black disclets and bits of polished quartz all bright from the mist off the river. The boy walked out and squatted and laved up the dark water.

Maybe it’s the syntax in this example. I’m not even getting into the inconsistency in the use of sentence fragments. I have no idea what he’s trying to say in this one:

When he rose and turned to go back the tarp was lit from within where the boy had awakened. Sited there in the darkness the frail blue shape of it looked like the pitch of some last venture at the edge of the world. Something all but unaccountable. And so it was.

If I’m spending the next ten pages annoyed with what I perceive is a writer’s arrogance — if I feel like I’m being reduced to someone who is just supposed to accept a paragraph of writing at face value because it’s Cormac McCarthy’s work and he is allowed to be cryptic and ambiguous…I know he’s an old man, and I know people will buy his books because he has written great ones and he’s a brilliant man…I don’t want him to take me for granted, though. There are many poor choices, and he needed to work harder. This is what I expect from his genius.

I’ve read glowing reviews of the book that suggested the novel was a brilliant character study. Excrement. I’m assuming the boy is around eight or nine years old. This scene demonstrates some of McCarthy’s laziness and nothing even resembling a depth in character:

Bye and bye they came to a set of tracks cooked into the tar. They just suddenly appeared. He squatted and studied them. Someone had come out of the woods in the night and continued down the melted roadway.

Who is it? said the boy.
I don’t know. Who is anybody?

What kind of a question is this for a nine year old boy, much less your own son? It’s easy to end the dialogue there, so open-ended that we assume it’s all wrapped up in zen Buddhism, with a side of fried existentialism. We don’t dare to question it, and yet it hovers over the reader while he chases his tail, searching for meaning in the words of the ever-elusive genius of Cormac McCarthy.

So it’s only fitting that he ends his book with more of the same:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

OK, I understand: the Earth will reset itself and life is a force that cannot be stopped, even if the form it assumes resembles nothing of what preceeded it. Great. I really don’t care how a book ends, as long as it’s well-written. I learned a long time ago not to hold much stock in how things end up. If it’s rendered well, I am satisfied. This was most definitely not rendered well.

I am not going to read any more of McCarthy’s subsequent books. He broke my heart with this one and treated me like an idiot. Yes, maybe it’s my problem with how I interpreted our relationship, but I don’t care. I feel what I feel. Instead of reading his next ten books (I hope he lives to 100 and beyond.) I’ll wait for his letters or his unpublished outtakes from past work. I’ll read his lectures and his interviews. I want to be reminded of the times I clutched his books and couldn’t (couldnt) wait to read the next page, the time before he started to drift away from me.

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