The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Not being overly impressed with the other two McCarthy books I'd listened to and finding the print version impossible to read, I didn't plan on tackling any more. However, I coouldn't resist this one because it was narrrated by the fabulous Tom Stechschulte and I wanted the company of his familiar voice.

The Road is one of those buddy, road-trip stories with a couple of differences: the buddies are a father and young son, and their trip takes place in a post-apocalyptic U.S. where few people are left alive and all of the infrastructures we count on, from food distribution to law enforcement, have disappeared. The survivors have become scavengers, governed only by whatever personal moral code they retain or, if banded together with others, by the mores of that group. Not so different from the wild west.

The father and son are headed south for reasons that are never explained, on foot, with their possessions in a metal grocery cart. They are regularly robbed of these possessions—blankets, coats, food—and sometimes replace them by stumbling over a cache that hasn't already been picked over. They try to avoid other people, not trusting anyone's motives and not wanting to end up as dinner for some ragged and starving band.

I found the story pretty boring, but kept listening, lulled by Stechschulte's voice. What I most liked was the father's protective care and concern for the child. I don't believe I've ever read about such devotion to a child from a man's point of view. At times the father almost seemed to worship the child, the one article of faith left to him, the embodiment of his only hope for the future.

In contrast, I thought of those self-centered parents today who abandon their children: fundamentalists who send their children to Christian boot camps to make them stop listening to pop music, rich people who buy their kids everything on earth and send them off with nannies or to boarding school, drug addicts who can't focus long enough to notice their children. Not all fundamentalists, not all rich people, not all drug addicts it goes without saying, but there are plenty of abandoned children at all levels of society.

Realising that I've read a lot of dystopias and end-of-the-world stories lately (Never Let Me Go, Children of Men, A Brief History of the Dead, Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid's Tale), I began to think about what it takes to survive.

In the early 1970s, I knew a man who had already recognised the fragility of our social infrastructures, something many of us didn't think about until the Y2K flap. He bought land in a remote area and stockpiled grains and beans in sealed metal trash cans. He collected hand tools and taught himself to fix any kind of machine, making parts when none were available. He didn't buy guns, like some survivalists, but there was a potential violence in him that convinced me he could protect himself.

The world didn't end. Food is still being delivered to the grocery store down the street; people still stop for red lights (most of the time); policemen and EMTs still come when you call 911. True, I seem to encounter the me-first phenomenon more and more often, especially on the highway, and wish the pendulum would swing back to more concern for the community as a whole. But it doesn't hurt to be reminded now and then of just how fragile the structure of our society is and how close we are to chaos.

All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

As I mentioned last week, I had tried to read this book several times without being able to get past the first few pages. Buoyed by my success with the other McCarthy book, I listened to this one on my most recent road trip. This version didn’t have the wonderful Tom Stechschulte as narrator, which made the story less interesting for me. The narrator was fine; he just didn’t have that so-familiar accent and phrasing.

I’ve heard that people either love or hate this book, but I have to say I found it a rather ho-hum coming-of-age story. In 1949, sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole leaves home after the farm he had hoped to inherit is sold out from under him. He doesn’t have any particular skills other than being good with horses. With his friend Lacey Rawlins, Cole sets off into Mexico looking for work, adventure and a chance to earn a stake. They meet up with a younger boy, thirteen, whose reckless ways quickly land the three young men in trouble.

As in No Country for Old Men there is a moment of irrevocable decision. As Cole prepares to help the boy recover his horse, Rawlins says to him, “. . .this is it. This is our last chance. Right now. This is the time and there wont be another time and I guarantee it.” Of course Rawlins is right: their later ordeals follow from this choice. The suffering and loss that Cole endures turn him into a man, the kind of hard-bitten, reticent man who appears in classic westerns. In a sense, this book is the back-story for Shane and all those other western heroes.

However, this excerpt also illustrates what I didn’t like about the book. Why do away with punctuation around dialogue? Cute. Precious. Unnecessarily confusing. Also, McCarthy dresses up this fairly ordinary story with sonorous language, strings of sentences held together by a series of “ands”, making it sound like something important is happening. I can see how a young man, especially one raised on the Bible, might think in such language, but—for me, anyway—the portentous tone backfired because it raised expectations that the story didn’t meet.

While the book didn’t live up to its reputation—the plot a string of brutal incidents, little character development outside of Cole, occasional bursts of poetry at odds with the rest of the story—I did want to know what happened to Cole. What I liked about him was the way he forged ahead, clinging to his own sense of what was right, even with Lacey pushing him to do what was expedient. For all that, Cole’s choices do take him across a moral line.

In a recent (8 August 2007) post to DOROTHYL, a listserv for mystery readers, author Laura Lippman wrote: “Here's my shorthand for noir — Dreamers become schemers. Classic noir stories are about little guys (and gals) whose relatively conventional dreams — for love, money or success — send them across moral boundaries that most of us never cross. And in a classic noir story, they lose, or most of them do.” Lippman’s description certainly fits Cole’s story.

Western noir seems almost an oxymoron, but there’s another sense in which this book reminded me of noir. In a review of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen's Union (“Sashimi with a Side of Fries”, _London Review of Books_16 August 2007) Adam Thirlwell says: “[This book] is also a contraption for trying to understand the meaning of the noir genre. According to this machine, a theory of Judaism might coincide with a theory of noir. Noir fiction describes a society in which happiness and goodness are always nostalgic. They are what might have been.”

In McCarthy’s book, there is a nostalgia, not just for childhood innocence, but for an earlier era. Myths of the American west shimmer behind the story, and shadows of mountain men and cowboys loom behind Cole as he struggles to make his way in a world that has changed and—we know—is about to change even more dramatically as America lurches into the 1950s. The very first image in the book is of “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame” moving together. For all the book’s failures, this is a wonderful symbol for the mysterious double-vision imparted by memory and a sense of the past.

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Before this book, I hadn’t read anything by McCarthy. I’d looked at All the Pretty Horses a couple of times thinking I ought to check it out, but couldn’t make it past the first couple of pages, with that disjointed first paragraph and the (I gather) now-famous image of a train as a “ribald satellite”. No, I thought. I have better things to do with my time. However, choosing books on tape at the library for a road trip, I picked this one up not realising who the author was and did, in fact, end up listening to it. Two things kept me interested.

The first was the narrator. With audio books, I’ve found that the narrator can make all the difference to a story. For example, I had no interest in the Harry Potter books until, on a friend’s recommendation, I tried Jim Dale’s audio versions and was immediately hooked. Other books I’ve had to give up on: the narrator’s tone was too uninflected (hence, boring); his/her accent was incorrect; s/he couldn’t differentiate the characters’ voices or—in one terrible case—keep the different voices straight.

Here, Tom Stechschulte gives a fine performance, but what really hooked me was that he sounds just like a friend of mine who is a native Texan. Now, I know several folks from Texas, but I’d never met anyone who sounded so much like my friend, not just the accent, but the intonation, the expressions, the pacing—everything. It was like having him right there in the car with me, telling me a story.

The other thing that kept me interested was the idea of the irrevocable decision. Llewellyn Moss, out hunting on his day off, stumbles across a drug deal gone bad, cars and dead men just lying there in the desert sun. He bypasses the drugs but chooses to take the bag full of money, a decision that drives the rest of the book. Yes, it’s your basic thriller, an ordinary man caught up in violent events he doesn’t completely understand. Moss is pursued by many people, but principally by Anton Chigurh, a killer for hire who is relentless and brutal.

Chigurh seemed like a robot to me, or maybe the posse in Butch Cassidy—something put there to keep the plot moving. It wasn’t just Chigurh; all of the characters except Moss seemed wooden and predictable. And the story seemed like one of those kill-fest films that are on tv sometimes on Saturday afternoon: just a lot of car chases, fight scenes and gore, without even a wood-chipper or a tango to make things interesting. Yet I kept listening, beguiled by Stechschulte’s voice, fascinated by the thought that one decision can set you on a path there’s no coming back from.

When I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard back in my teens, I was horrified by this line of Guildenstern’s: “‘There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it.'” For years I painstakingly examined every decision, not wanting to miss that moment. However, despite all my obsessive care, no major decision has turned out the way I thought it would. I’ve learned to live with my irrevocable decisions and their unintended consequences. Still, I was curious to see how Moss’s decision to take the money would work out, if he would find a way to avoid the fate the book’s title promised.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Like The Handmaid’s Tale this story is set in a future that is only too possible. Atwood’s story-telling gifts haven’t diminished, nor has her eye for potential social problems lost its focus. It’s an end-of-the-world book, after the apocalypse, but the mechanics of how we got there are less interesting to me than the ruminations of the main character.

In the opening pages we meet Snowman, a man in a Red Sox cap waking to his world where there is no medicine for infected mosquito bites and only a mango (if he’s lucky) for breakfast. We meet the mysterious children who can’t identify the hubcaps and fast food containers that wash up on the shore and look to Snowman for help. The story unfolds, as addictively readable as all of Atwood’s work, through this man’s thoughts, his lonely fantasies, his memories of a time that is gone. The stream of his consciousness is very well done, larded with trivia, half-remembered commercials, snatches of speech that have lost their context.

We learn about Snowman’s past, as a boy named Jimmy who hung out with his best friend Crake, playing videogames and surfing the web. There, on the web, he catches sight of a girl who will haunt him all of his life: Oryx, whom he will meet and love as an adult. Jimmy’s world is one in which the rich live in gated compounds protected by private police forces which everyone else lives in the riotous and dangerous pleeblands. The compounds are company towns, run by corporations looking to make money off of gene-splicing experiments. Not so great a stretch from where we are now.

The neighborhood where I used to live, situated a little north of the geographical center of the city, wanted to build a wall around itself and remake itself as a gated community, plucked out of the city’s grid of streets. Several of us fought the notion and eventually they let it go, but they did hire a private police force whose first action was to shoot the foxes and other wildlife that have taken refuge in the city as their usual habitats have been destroyed. Their next action was to arrest an elderly man going down his sidewalk in pajamas and bathrobe to get the morning paper. His crime? He was African-American, so obviously couldn’t be a homeowner in that upscale neighborhood. Atwood has carried this cultural trend forward into its logical end.

I know little about gene-splicing, though GM foods make me nervous. Still, I can well believe that scientists somewhere might be looking to create a pigoon: a pig genetically modified to grow transplantable human organs. But for Snowman, starving and determined to travel to the ruins of the nearest compound in search of food, the pigoons, feral now and starving themselves, have become a threat.

What Atwood does so well is sprinkle these futuristic elements into the rich batter of life as we know it, of familiar thoughts and obsessions. Her characters are completely human and recognisable. If I were teaching a fantasy/scifi writing class, I would use this book as the primary text because, quite aside from the mechanics of creating this believable future, she has told a story that has had me puzzling over its implications for days and wondering how much is too much.