***The following review, such as it is, might be considered spoilerish.
Proceeding cautiously through my long-awaited, chronological rereading of the works of Cormac McCarthy, reading the supplemental materials I’ve picked up over the years, and marveling at things I hadn’t noticed first time around. Isn’t that why we reread anything?
This one, as dark and foreboding as anything he’s written, in several ways, seems the telling of the Anti-Nativity—not the birth of the Anti-Christ, but a birth magnificently abhorrent, replete with familiar, though inverted/contorted biblical images worthy of Dante or Bruegel. Consider the three itinerant misfits who preside over the italicized sections—not the Magi, but three evil personages whose presence coincides with the birth of the child, whose presence is a torment to Culla, Rinthy, the unnamed child, the tinker, indeed everyone they encounter—who arrive, not bearing gifts but spreading carnage; consider their unholy communion around the fire with Culla; consider their leader’s uncanny resemblance to Judge Holden (the personification of evil in Blood Meridian).
To belabor the point: consider the unnecessary Sacrifice (is a human sacrifice ever necessary?). Try not to compare/contrast the Slaughter of the Innocents writ small in the final campfire scene. Try not to compare/contrast the biblical images of shepherds tending flocks with pigs run amok while their drovers shower blame on the innocent bystander. Try not to consider the child as one sent to redeem the sins of the world, but rather, as one who suffers the sins of the world nevertheless.
OD is more than biblical images, biblical language, poetry, and pacing, although it’s hard to not recognize or sense that biblical heft. Some readers may come away from OD feeling as though they’ve read the equivalent of the entire Old Testament. As an aside, I should mention that my biblical recollections are dated—arising, as they did (biting my tongue here) from a period after I followed a spectacular pair of blue jeans to a tent revival which led to a Scandinavian extravaganza with the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International.
It’s tempting to bump up the star rating on this, as it was with The Orchard Keeper, but unless something really startling happens on these rereads I’m going to stick with my initial rating. In this case, maybe bump it up to 4.5 so I can still distinguish it from No Country for Old Men—but then, I may like that one better this time around as well. And now, kind ladies and good gentlemen, I can proceed to the corresponding chapter in Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee Period in the hope of eventually overcoming my novice standing in the world of Cormac McCarthy studies; I know, I know, wishful thinking, but good things come to those who …wait, we’re talking McCarthy—good thing I’m not one of his protagonists.
Face it GoodReaders—Cormac McCarthy isn’t for everyone. I doubt it was ever his intention. He doesn’t write for the casual reader, or even the avid reader. I think he writes primarily for himself, and gets rather a kick out of those of us who follow his every word and enjoy it for what it is. Like any artist, he creates a work, makes it available to a public, and moves on. He’s seemingly uninterested in what people think of his work, or in discussing his work, or its popularity. Reception to his work runs the gamut: from the high praise of the eggheads (critics) and wanna-be eggheads, like myself, to the braying of the rabble: “it’s boring,” “what’s with that punctuation?” “he makes up words.” Comments like those suggest to me that a reader has read the wrong book; they say more about the reader than the text. Before I’m bashed for my arrogance, I concede that any reaction to a work of art is valid; it is what it is. BUT, a reaction doesn’t define a work; it merely says something about the observer. No book will ever appeal to everyone.
That said, McCarthy does resonate well with ‘serious’ critics—there are numerous volumes of literary criticism dedicated to his work. I suspect he’s better represented among current literary criticism than most contemporary writers because the writers of literary criticism often share and appreciate the same language and tradition.
McCarthy drives the plot-driven readers crazy. His novels aren’t without plot, but they’re often not plot-driven. A recapitulation of the story cannot convey the experience of reading McCarthy. His characterization often requires the participation of the reader, building on minimal dialogue, frequently minimal action, and the reader’s sense of self and stereotype (come on! Any domestic reader will conjure a vision of the characters from McCarthy’s ‘Tennessee period’). His novels are ALWAYS vividly situated with incredible images of place.
One week into the new year, and I’ve finished my first title—a rereading of this one. Staggering. I liked it even better this time around, although I’m sticking with my original rating. Not my favorite McCarthy, but it is everything I like most about his work. Relentless language, relentless storytelling…poetic, hyper-masculine, storytelling for the sake of the telling rather than the sake of the story. It is my intention to reread all his fiction and dramatic works over the coming year, as well as, the volumes of criticism I’ve acquired and have yet to read. One per month seems reasonable and without risk of burnout or wrist-slashing depression. Boy howdy!