Thursday, 4 December 2014

Down Forgotten Ragged Paths - Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy writes such austere, blunt stories. They feel as though they are wood carvings beautifully created from fallen Redwood cut with stark prose, sculptures crafted from the bedrock of the American landscape, chipped from granite, etched in charcoal, coloured by the shifting haze thrown down where the westering sun sinks into the broken mountains that raise their horny heads beneath the canopy of the darkening sky. McCarthy is the conduit that connects ancient America to the history of Europe and the rest of the world. He manages to conjure through his bleak, majestic prose a grim, earthy humanity that both transcends the land it springs from whilst incorporating  it with the globe and the nations that reside there so that each collective, each tribe have a commonality that is as inclusive as it is individual. If his hand were the single thing of the men and women he writes of then the fingers would be stained by mulch, compost and nicotine. Cornac McCarthy writes from the soil and the soul.
 
I won't pretend that I have read all his novels. That would be false. I haven't. I have read thus far five. Each of those five stand heads and shoulders above all and any other American writer living today that I have read. McCarthy is American fiction. Just like Mark Twain all those years ago he embodies both its past and its future. He has captured the core of what it is to be American. All the proud pioneering spirit. The strength of character that formed the United States. But it is an honest portrayal that brooks no sentimentality. He tells it as it was, as it still is even as that embodiment fades as modernity claims another, bigger, victim.
 
The five novels I have read are, in the order I read them, 'The Road,' 'Child of God,' 'All the Pretty Horses,' 'The Crossing,' and 'Cities of the Plain.' These five stand tall. Taller and prouder than any other books by any other contemporary American author. These books are monumental.
 

Cormac elicits strains of Celtic, Apache, Mayan and every other indigenous story telling. His style incorporates a  camp fire, smoky logs burning bright, gathering as passed down from story weaver to audience throughout the history of mankind. It is this natural ability that makes his works such magnificent achievements and so accessible. Only the best can create what the world now calls literary fiction with commercial. It is a rare talent that few, Murakami another, have. Perhaps Southern Gothic is the banner beneath which McCarthy's books tread.
 
  
 
'The Road.' Oh wow. There have been post-apocalyptic novels before but I guarantee that none of them were as good as this. This is grim, stark, bleak and harrowing. It is also like any good work of fiction entirely believable. It features just a father and son. That’s it. The few other characters are as driftwood. They float into the tales then float out again. The two central characters are set adrift in a markedly changed world. You never know when this change occurred, what caused but there are clues enough, should you wish to find them, littered among the narrative. The sense of isolation is profound and the sense of danger tangible. A constant threat hangs heavy the way paranoia does when a threat is ever present. There are no chapters, no easy points of identification to refer to which oddly mirrors the landscape the pair travel along. Nor is there any form on paragraphed indentation: just blocks of text held in blunt relief that delineate the fictional, failed world our protagonists inhabit. The prose is mostly perfunctory, remorseless but occasionally rising to a plateau of desperate poetry so that the tale is measured ugly or simple. The prose is flat but never featureless depicting as it does a world, our world that seems unrecognisable to both the reader and the characters in the tale. The story attaches a human touch by illustrating the bond formed between father and son. Their conversations are frank, forthright and succinct as if time for conversation is a luxury in a ruined planet; it is sometimes tragic, often sad but occasionally humorous. Having a man and a child allows for a sharp frisson  Cormac McCarthy leaves no room for sentiment. There is pity for those found burnt, mummified or dying in the aftermath of whatever catastrophe befell the human race, all life in fact, but not salvation, no rescue from the blighted earth. There are no heroes; just the father and son walking from one side of the American continent to the other. The story reveals, with its terrible beauty, an ugly truth about mankind showing us as being good and evil, kind and callous. If there is a message here then it is that. This book is a modern day masterpiece.
 

A love story by any other name. One that eschews sentimentality but delivers a realism seldom seen in fiction. Not that grim realism as found in crime fiction where those words become less honest in front of all the histrionic pap authored, but true, live or die as you shall, hungry as hungry can be when a man hasn't eat for days, bone weariness that comes from days without sleep, death that strikes hard but with a lack of drama. Sudden, swift, done and over. A snake bite not seen, fast coming.
 
When we think of a 'western' we think cowboys and Indians circa late 1800's. This story is a western, a romance, but set during World War 2. Here again McCarthy digs deep into an America we often forget or tend to think had faded sooner than it really had.
 
It features two young men, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins who leave Texas, the former sixteen the other seventeen, to seek a new life in Mexico. They encounter a fellow traveller along the way, a younger man/child who strikes as being a little wild.
 
The poetry of the story as told by Cormac McCarthy is rough hewn and gritty. It is as authentic a language as I have ever read. Bone hard and grim the tale it tells encompasses a slow burning story that is as beautiful as it is bleak. This is the first of 'The Border Trilogy.'
 
'The Crossing' and 'Cities of the Plain' follow on planting wolf foot prints in pristine snow that even Jack London would have both admired and conceded the better ability to the younger man. And yes, there is a wolf, a she-wolf who is hunted by Billy and his brother Boyd.  It is the late 1930's. War in Europe is the faintest of rumours, a whisper borne on eastern winds that no one near the borderlands pays much mind to. Here Cormac McCarthy runs the tale down epic glades filled with a rich, forever shifting set of characters. From America through Mexico the brothers range first Billy with the wolf and then, following the murder of their parents, together. It twists and turns take the gentlest curves even if those they encounter are anything but gentle. Another ferocious, plaintive story.
 


The final book in the trilogy, 'Cities of the Plain,' brings Billy and John Grady together. It is now 1952. America is leading the world with its modern thrust. For fifty years a nation promoting the new, the exciting, the challenging with a true democracy has sought to lay o rest its old, foundering fathers, pioneer spirit. The old seems forgotten as the twentieth century fires along, full bloodied, full of steam yet still full of the old, now brushed aside values. Mister McCarthy manages to capture the true heart of that Western continent, its ragged legends, its home spun myths, its gritty honesty and retell them over but within the fabric of a modern painting, a palimpsest over which history merges with the modern. 

It is a love story, a twisted romance. It sounds like a song by Neil Young, fragile, feral, frail. There is humour too. In all of Mister McCarthy's work there is that spark. It is as dry as day old bread, crusty, still edible but still able to raise a smile.

Mister McCarthy traces the time when the sheer velocity of change within America was staggering. It not only affected his nation, dragging it reluctantly out of the past into the future, but sucked every other country along in its wake. Some of that change was needed, some was not and it is that paradox, that wanton change for change sake, some of it good, some of it bad, that he highlights here. This set of books, this trilogy, is such  a staggering achievement and one so simply told that as many people as possible should read them. They are a must for any enthusiast of modern literature be it American or otherwise.

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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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