I'll admit it freely- I was unprepared for Cormac McCarthy. Sure, I've heard all the reviews: that he's bleak, despairing, has a dark and twisted worl...moreI'll admit it freely- I was unprepared for Cormac McCarthy. Sure, I've heard all the reviews: that he's bleak, despairing, has a dark and twisted worldview, offers little hope for the future, et cetera ad nauseum. It's one thing to hear about this and to know that cracking a Cormac McCarthy book is not going to be an exercise in gumdrops and rainbows, it's a whole other thing to actually open a book and expose yourself to over 400 pages of brutally hard-living and events that shake your faith in humankind even as you marvel at the tenacity of the human spirit.
The second in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, you know within the opening pages that this is a far different beast of a book than the award-winning All The Pretty Horses. The protagonists are similar, both teen boys looking for adventure and meaning on the other side of the thin imaginary line that divides American soil from Mexican. Yet where John Grady Cole descended into Mexico to care for horses and search out love, The Crossing's Billy Parham is on a quest that makes Sisyphus' efforts look like a lark. After trapping a pregnant wolf that has been preying on his family's cattle, Billy finds he can't bring himself to kill her and instead sets forth to the mountains of Mexico to release her back into the wild.
Of course nothing goes as it should and by the time Billy meanders back across the border to the ruins of his life he is hardly the immature youth who first set out on the long road through unfriendly lands. Through a series of events that are better left unwritten here, Billy finds himself drawn to Mexico again and again as the years go by, each journey removing more and more of his ties to the world and rendering him a living ghost haunted by the choices he's made and the vicissitudes of fate that have left him bereft.
Much has been made of the brutality and violence in McCarthy's works and I would be remiss if I didn't mention something about them. Don't get me wrong, this book is violent. There are descriptions of extreme brutality that makes you wonder as to the mental stability of the author- a particularly gruesome description of a man's eyes being sucked from his skull by a perverse German still haunt me. It's not only human-on-human violence within these pages, though. Some of the most inexplicable and haunting acts are performed on animals- the wolf, a dog, Billy's horse- which does far more to bring home the nature of the harsh world that Billy exists in.
The interesting thing, for me, is that most of the violence happens off-stage and is made known to the reader only through the effects it has on his characters. You don't get the action, but the reaction. It was this remove from the actual violence that made it seem that much more hard-hitting. Even the violence that occurs on-stage is briefly described in favor of longer passages dealing with the characters recovery from these events. It is this, the focus on the consequences of violence rather than the violence itself, that sticks with the reader long after the last page has been turned.
McCarthy is a man who has ruminated at great lengths on the darker nature of humanity and it is laid out fantastically herein. Questions of faith in a god that lets such atrocities as described above occur, moments of extreme kindness and charity by the most dispossessed inhabitants of the Sonoran desert, the sheer random nature of some of the events- McCarthy has crafted a fable that cuts right to the heart of humanity and leaves you questioning whether original sin may actually be an affliction which we suffer. At the very least, he's earned a dedicated fan and I can not wait to read the concluding book of the trilogy.(less)
This has been one hell of a winter of McCarthy for me. Starting in early January I began his award-winning Border Trilogy with much trepidation. Havin...moreThis has been one hell of a winter of McCarthy for me. Starting in early January I began his award-winning Border Trilogy with much trepidation. Having previously only read his Pulitzer-winning father-son dystopian nightmare, The Road, and found it severely lacking, I was curious to see if McCarthy's previous works were worthy of the acclaim in which they are held. After three weeks of being immersed in one of the most bleak interpretations of humanity and exposure to tragedy that would make even the ancient Greeks wince in sympathy, I can easily attest to McCarthy's merits as a thinker and a writer. That said, while still an eminently enjoyable read that I could not make myself put down (even under direct threat of bodily harm), Cities of the Plain is still the weakest of the Border Trilogy.
On face it sounds like a mishmash designed to cash in on the name value of two of McCarthy's most haunting characters. John Grady Cole, the lovelorn horse whisperer of All The Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham, the haunted wanderer of The Crossing, are working on a ranch in New Mexico in the early days of 1952. Threatened by plummeting profits and the loss of their grazing land through an eminent domain seizure by a Cold War military looking for the most unwanted, hard-scrabble land on which to test their weapons in the first days of the nuclear arms race. Cowboys in an atomic age, the protagonists know their world is ending and deal with it in their tried and tested ways. Grady Cole by throwing himself into a(nother) forbidden romance, this time no estancia owner's daughter but an epileptic prostitute across the border in Juarez, while Billy Parham rides the range from one end to another trying to outrun the ghosts of his past.
I have to admit that for the first two hundred pages I didn't quite understand the point of even including Parham's character as, up to that point, the story focused almost entirely on Grady Cole's fantasy of saving the hooker with the heart of gold. Of course, this being McCarthy, nothing works out as it should and eventually Parham's involvement makes sense as his coterie of shades swells in number and he attempts once more to find justice in Mexico, the country that has peeled away one attachment after another from him.
It is with his involvement that the story redeems itself. The character of Billy Parham stands as one of my all-time favorites. Desirous of new frontiers, haunted by the death of his family, always searching for a new place to call home and forever unable to attain it- he's like the Flying Dutchman on horseback. McCarthy uses him to great effect within these pages, too, as both a vengeful spirit and a barometer for measuring the changing standards of an age as the Southwest moves from the freedom of the open range to the ignorant, militia-enforced, border fence-building, we-don't-hablo-no-espanol standards of today.(less)
It's been said that for writer's first novels, it is inevitable that they wear their influences on their sleeves. This is certainly the case with Corm...moreIt's been said that for writer's first novels, it is inevitable that they wear their influences on their sleeves. This is certainly the case with Cormac McCarthy's second novel, Outer Dark. Steeped in the tradition of Southern Gothic writing, this story of wandering siblings perpetually on the wrong side of luck and fortune reads like a Faulknerian nightmare.
Rinthy Holme has no sooner given birth to her first child than its father, her brother Culla, hoping to rid himself of the incestuous offspring steals it away and leaves it to the fates and the elements to dispose of. Fate has other plans for the babe, though, and a traveling tinker soon finds the child and cares for it. Not believing Culla's protestations that the infant is long dead and suffering from an overproduction of milk, Rinthy heads off down the road to track down her child. Feeling somewhat responsible (as well he should), Culla soon follows after, searching alternately for his missing sister and the child that seems to have cursed his very existence.
From town to town throughout the South these siblings wander, Rinthy meeting the good people of the land and benefiting from the charitable nature that lies within most while Culla is plunged from one doomed misadventure to another in a descent toward madness that makes one wonder whether his long odyssey is some act of Old Testament vengeance a la Job. Throughout the tale he is run out of town, suspected of murder, trapped on an out of control boat with a frenzied horse, nearly plunged over the side of a cliff during a stampede, until finally coming face to face with evil incarnate in the form of three murderers who have been dogging his footsteps through every town and hamlet, leaving behind the bodies of those who dare to show friendship or kindness to this damned soul.
This is an old school morality tale of the sort that I had long thought extinguished from contemporary fiction. There is none of the moral relativism or justification for a person's actions that is a hallmark of postmodern thought, but rather absolute morality of a sort that calls to mind a darker and harder age- if not the Old Testament then further back to the first tragedies of the Greeks. The writing isn't McCarthy's greatest, large swaths of the book read like minor rewrites of Faulkner's A Light In August, but there are all the ingredients I've come to expect from McCarthy- violence, hopelessness, a sense of loss at the changing of one epoch to another, and a yielding to the vicissitudes of fate. I don't think it stacks up to his more well-known works, but is an exceedingly entertaining early effort from an author that I am swiftly coming to regard as one of the most important thinkers still putting pen to page.(less)
There are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passed...moreThere are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passed on with loving grace and books that are clung to relentlessly for years. There are books of which we hear much yet never open and obscure books that catch our eye in a musty booksellers that swiftly become those items with which to cudgel our own friends. There are books that you forget minutes after reading and books that haunt your steps for years like a ghost of memory. Those are the books which I am always in search of, the always rare tomes that live on inside of you long after the final page is turned and inform your worldview for years, either consciously or not. Without realizing the import at the time, picking this lengthy read from atop my ever-growing to-read pile was the defining moment of my entire year.
Mario Vargas Llosa is an author of whom I had heard much, yet, for one ill-conceived reason or another, had never picked up any of his works and read them. All throughout my hodgepodge affair with Latin American authors there he has sat, waiting patiently as I endured the brilliant-but-meandering Garcia Marquez, the imaginative-yet-overblown Allende, the deliberately obtuse Bolano. Finally on a cold morning in February, as I cursed at my stacks of books purchased in haste and then left to linger for months, the spirit of inspiration that first moved me to acquire this structurally unsound stack of literature lit once more upon my shoulder and whispered at me to pick that beautiful red cover featured above from the neglected horde. Nothing has been the same since.
It is remarkably easy to dive deep into the world of post-Monarchist Brazil, populated by a vast coterie of the wretched and the ignorant and torn apart by the shifting winds of change and the turning of one epoch to another. Brazil has won its freedom from the monarchs of Portugal and is constructing its first civil government- with all the implements of the State which we take for granted now: marriage available for the first time outside of a church, a census to better know the nascent country's people and its needs, taxes to be paid for the creation of new roads and railways to better connect this country of nigh unfathomable size. Things that we, little more than a century later, take for granted (though we still seem to be having some delay with that whole Civil Marriage thing).
Not so in turn-of-the-century Bahia, a state midway along the coast known today primarily for its vast cacao plantations. In the backlands of this state wanders a man known as The Counselor preaching the Gospels to the illiterate, rebuilding churches fallen into disrepair and, everywhere he walks, showing love and acceptance for the most miserable and misshapen (both physically and mentally), some for the first time in their lives. He builds quite a dedicated following out of the dregs of society, winning over cangaceros (bandits), merchants, beggars and mutants as he travels for many years around the interior. Until one day he is shown a proclamation from the Republic informing the populace that civil marriage is now allowed and a census is to be taken regularly. Seeing this as a full assault on the church to which he is beholden he realizes that the faith is under assault by this new monster called the Republic, who must surely be the Antichrist in disguise. There is nothing to be done but to find some land and build a true city of god where his followers may live in peace. The fledgling state sees this as an open revolt to be quashed immediately lest other regions follow the example of the faithful of Canudos and proceeds to send out that true Antichrist, the Brazilian Army to ruthlessly put down this secessionist movement.
And so begins the tumultuous The War of the End of the World, based on true events but given poetic timbre by Vargas Llosa's pen. A cast of hundreds filters through, all with their histories and viewpoints, none purely evil and all conflicted by the demands this new age makes upon them. The beauty of Vargas Llosa's writing really comes through here as each, rebel and soldier, takes their minute upon the stage and illuminates very clearly the trying nature of these times. The doomed European idealist Gallileo Gall who believes quite fervently in both the ideal of Revolution and the disproved tenets of phrenology. The Dwarf, a member of a traveling circus fallen upon hard times. The near-sighted Journalist who plays the role of a faithless Job here, plagued by misfortune again and again. The retired cangacero Pajeu who has found grace in the Counselor's teachings and makes up for his bloody past by becoming a guerilla leader against the Army expeditions that assault Canudos again and again. The cast is vast but, so consummate is Vargas Llosa's skill, it never becomes overwhelming or difficult to keep straight.
Like the better-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa creates a whole world around the blessed miscreants in Canudos, but also improves upon it by pulling back on the scope of his ambitions and focusing instead on just those events that are germane to the story at hand. Where Garcia Marquez can tend to become overblown and distracted by whatever thoughts pass through his, admittedly admirable, head, Vargas Llosa uses his digressions to better tie his story together. This is performed so perfectly that when, near the end of the tale, a character says that "Canudos isn't a story; it's a tree of stories" you can't help but nod your head in agreement and marvel at Vargas Llosa's deft skill in crafting such an impeccable novel. Having been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature one can only hope that this brings his works to a new generation of bibliophiles for he is, without a doubt, one of the finest wordsmiths that I have ever had the privilege of reading.(less)
It's no secret that the state of African politics is corrupt and dirty. Still reeling from decades of colonization by Western nations, riven by tribal...moreIt's no secret that the state of African politics is corrupt and dirty. Still reeling from decades of colonization by Western nations, riven by tribal loyalties, brutally ruled by an ever-changing assortment of strongman rulers who can temporarily unite a people before collapsing into the ever-familiar patterns of megalomania and constructing their own cult of personality, the continent seems like the nearly perfect place to set a tale of intrigue and betrayal of the sort that John le Carre has been spinning for years. With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, le Carre lost his thematic touchstone and was forced to look beyond the Balkan settings of his famous spy novels. Some new settings have been found wanting, such as in his forgettable Tailor of Panama, while others have been positively inspired, such as in Absolute Friends, his look at the German revolutionaries of the late 60s and early 70s. Never, though, has he been able to weave a web of intrigue as well as he does when he's charting the recolonization of Africa by various corporate powers who manipulate desperate governments and corrupt militaries to win concessions to either pillage valuable resources for export to the all-consuming American maw, or to use these developing nations as test beds for new drugs and procedures that would never pass the scrutiny of any regulatory agency as he did in the masterful The Constant Gardener.
Not content to merely reveal the effects of those decisions made in secluded board rooms atop large skyscrapers and carried out in the backwater locales of the Congo, The Mission Song puts us in the room with these decision-makers as they weigh the worth of human lives against the possible profits to be squeezed from their blood-soaked land. Bruno Salvador, or Salvo to his friends, is the bastard son of an Irish priest and a Congolese woman who has used his extensive knowledge of various tribal languages to secure a much-valued post in the translation department of British Intelligence.
All goes swimmingly for Salvo until he is asked to serve as translator at a conference to be held at an undisclosed location for undisclosed African power brokers to hammer out the details of a new coup that will bring "peace" to his war torn homeland and enormous profits for the coup's faceless backers. Inadvertently overhearing (and recording) a torture session used to sway a recalcitrant plotter back into the conspiracy, Salvo realizes that this coup is just another aspect of business as usual for his masters. What follows is an exercise in futility as Salvo attempts to gain the ear of someone, anyone, in authority who can call off this coup before yet more blood is poured on the earth.
This is not the greatest le Carre that I've read, but neither is it the weakest. It has the feel of a dashed-off effort used to fulfill some contractual obligation more than as a labor of love- those stories that well up inside you and demand to be recounted. Still, it is a fast and entertaining read that provides all the suspense that le Carre is rightly renowned for. Perfect for reading in the park on a sunny day or at the beach as you keep half an eye on your wayward children.(less)
Oh Shteyngart, Shteyngart, Shteyngart... Whatever are we to do with you? I want to love you unabashedly, to throw myself upon your bittersweet prose l...moreOh Shteyngart, Shteyngart, Shteyngart... Whatever are we to do with you? I want to love you unabashedly, to throw myself upon your bittersweet prose like the proverbial soldier smothering a grenade to save his fellows, to take your melancholy bullet like the most dedicated Secret Service agent. Your pathetic heroes, your capricious heroines, your stunningly rendered dystopian futures; your style is instantly recognizable and you are not afraid to repeat themes until you feel you've sufficiently battered the reader with them. These are the things I love about you and why I continue to return again and again to your books. With all of this going in your favor, with all the laurels that critics throw at your feet, why on Earth can't you figure out how to write a satisfying ending?
Fresh off the success of his previous endeavor, the New York Times "Notable" book Absurdistan, Shteyngart returns to familiar territory with his post-millennial tale of love in an ADD age. The absurdly maladjusted, overweight, flop sweat ridden, and all-around pathetic Lenny Abramov meets the comely and ever fickle Eunice Parks, daughter of abusive father and traditionally subservient mother, plagued with self loathing and a yearning for a life she can't even express that she wants. In a nightmare New York where people's worth is determined by brightly lit poles beaming their credit scores, fuckability, fashion ranking, and whatever other frivolous metrics may be hip for the moment to everyone's smartphones (cheekily renamed apparats to protect the innocent), these two star-crossed lovers try to carve out a niche for themselves while also combating the incessantly niggling inner voice that demands one to conform with society-at-large.
All is not just peaches and depression, though. As he did in Absurdistan, Shteyngart relies on the larger unraveling of society to advance the plot and allow his characters to make absurd uncharacteristic transitions. Therein lies my problem with this book and why I deny it that last star. From the point the United States stops to exist in even that vaguely familiar way it had at the beginning of the book both Lenny and Eunice begin to act in ways that have little in common with the characters we've come to know in the preceding two hundred pages. After spending the entire book being a doormat for Eunice, his boss Joshie and his fiends, Lenny comes to value himself as an individual in such a sudden and jarring way that I could not help rolling my eyes. A small thing to take umbrage with, I know, but a very similar thing happened in both Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and I was dreading the same thing here.
Still there are few as capable as Shteyngart at satirizing society. From the greed and outsourcing of war explored in Absurdistan to American society in nadir here, he shows a fantastic ability at pulling the doubts and neuroses from the sea of our collective unconscious and plunking them on the page so astutely that a reader squirms with discomfort to see our very lives rendered jokes. It is this skill that initially drew me to Shteyngart so many years ago and why I continue to hold him in such high regard. I would just like his characters to make more sense as they evolve through the story.(less)
What an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to des...moreWhat an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to describe my time with it ever since. This vast and sprawling epic is an ambitious, eloquent and beautiful novel- the type of read that reminds you of what all literature should strive to be. Or as Bolano puts it far more succinctly: "what a sad paradox... Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown... they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench." This is exactly that sort of book and Bolano is undoubtedly one of the great masters, if it wasn't clear after Savage Detectives then 2666 should put all doubts to rest. This is the sort of book that inspires a reader to pick up a pen for the first time in who-knows-how-long and jot out their own ramblings or makes you want to tackle all of those great pillars of literature that have loomed intimidatingly on the horizon for years, as though after summiting this peak you can handle just about anything an author can throw at you. Bolano likely intended such a challenge to his readers though, the chiding asides sprinkled through the book about the state of writing and reading in the world today serving as goads to spur the reader on.
Like most great pieces of literature, it's not easy to describe this book. At its center lies the fictional city of Santa Teresa, a sprawling necropolis of factories and slums situated across the thin Arizona border in the Mexican state of Sonora. A perfect representation of the dark and cannibalistic side of capitalist consumption, this city is a charnel house that consumes with unceasing hunger those souls who venture to the border looking for a better life. An epidemic of brutal killings has plagued the city for over a decade, hundreds of women raped, murdered, and dumped on trash heaps as the citizenry has internalized the message fed them at every turning. This message, that people, like the goods churned out in the maquiladoras, are disposable, cheap, rarely missed and easily replaced, creates an oppressive atmosphere of dread that permeates the five interweaving stories that spin out from Santa Teresa like the spokes on a bicycle and perfectly brings to life the Baudelaire quote with which Bolano opens the book, "an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom."
In a postscript the heirs to Bolano's estate write about how, in his last days, Bolano insisted that the book be split into its five parts and sold separately so as to provide for the future well-being of his offspring. Fortunately his heirs couldn't stand to see the book sundered like that and initially published it as a whole before issuing a second edition sold as a quintet. While each of the parts can be seen as a stand alone tale set in the same world, I think it is the incongruities between these differing parts of the story that help the whole thing congeal into its own large imbalanced creature. We have the critics, devoting their whole lives to promoting a reclusive author who may or may not have finally surfaced in Mexico while still playing out the familiar power dynamics of a three-way sexual relationship. We have the Chilean expat, Professor Amalfitano, who may be receiving telepathic messages from an ancient race of humans or may just be going mad with worry about the fate of his nubile young daughter in a city that eats its young. There is the aging black power activist turned magazine writer, venturing into Santa Teresa on his first assignment as a boxing reporter. There are the hapless police of Santa Teresa on the hunt for this woman killer whilst being flummoxed at all turns by corruption from above, poor training from below, and the sheer systemic nature of the murders. Then, finally, there's the reclusive author himself Benno Von Archimboldi, a former German soldier turned literary star who seals together all these disparate parts into its substantial whole. Separately these are all interesting and distracting vignettes, together they form like Voltron into a lumbering golem of greatness.
There are some faltering steps though, however small. Part 4, the part that focuses on the killings, gets particularly rough about two hundred pages through after about the 70-80th clinically stark description of the raped and murdered corpses that keep appearing in the illegal dumps of Santa Teresa. A friend of mine aptly described this section as the book's Everest and it did indeed prove difficult to summit, but well worth it in the end. Finally, there's also the unfinished nature of the book. Bolano died before finishing it, so things are never tied up neatly in a little bow for the reader. Still, leaving the story without a definitive conclusion fits well with what I've taken away from the book- that events just happen and that there's no rhyme or reason to most of them. That we would all like to think we are the protagonists in our own stories, but for all we know we're just bit players in another player's banal Sisyphean epic. If you can accept that not things need conclusions but are just as powerful simply for having existed even briefly then this is a book that will astound and inspire. (less)
Daniel Woodrell is an author gifted with extraordinary descriptive talents and an imagination so dark and murky I would not want to go wading through...moreDaniel Woodrell is an author gifted with extraordinary descriptive talents and an imagination so dark and murky I would not want to go wading through too deeply lest I end up a meal for the alligators and snakes that surely flourish in such conditions. It shouldn't be as easy as it is for him to call to life the haunting beauty of the forests and rivers of wild Appalachia while at the same time people it with characters for whom complete and spontaneous violent outbursts are always an acceptable method of conflict resolution. Whether you're bashing your rapist Uncle over the head with a log or driving your car over a cliff while attempting to run over a hitchhiker, you fit in well in Woodrell's world.
These short stories are not all bloodlust and Southern-fried violence, however. Into the mix, Woodrell scatters some of those bittersweet moments of earnestness that made Winter's Bone such a compelling read and make Woodrell's debt to Cormac McCarthy all the more obvious. Two offerings in particular stand out among this collection. The first, "Black Step", is a painful tale of alienation and hurt as it recounts a recently-returned-from-Iraq veteran taking care of his ailing mother's farm while also coping with his PTSD and emotionally-shallow friends whose version of commiseration is finding out how people's heads look when they explode. The next, "Woe To Live On", is the stand-out winner in this collection. Set in the early days of WWI it features an elderly wood-carver who had served as a bushwhacker during Reconstruction, ambushing and killing Union troops intent on pacifying the still-roiling South, dealing with moving into a new global era and the changing American worldview. I think this story should be required reading for Tea Partiers, but doubt most would get the point.
Making for an entertaining afternoon of reading, this is a short and quick collection of stories that I could not put down once starting to read. Each surprising twist ending propelled me further, I needed to see what would happen next. Next thing I knew I had torn through the meager 167 pages and wanted more. Some of these stories are clear throw aways, writing exercises that probably should have stayed on his hard drive rather than being used to pad this collection, but which are still entertaining. I'm uncertain whether most of these tales will stay with me as I move on to other reads, but I'm still incredibly glad I read it.(less)