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McCarthy-ism 

By Phil Thornton 

 

There is something of the ancients in Cormac McCarthy, something that evokes Moses and Homer, as well as Milton and Blake and Melville and even Ellroy. A world that is at once brutal and barbaric yet poetic and mystical, where men are truly beyond good and evil and inhabit a No Man’s Land between morality and instinct, a place where laws and rules and other abstract human concepts have no meaning and all that’s left is base survival.

 

Like many people I first became aware of McCarthy’s writing via the Cohen Brother’s film version of his novel, ‘No Country For Old Men’ and although not overly impressed with the movie, I coincidentally came across McCarthy’s latest novel ‘The Road’ in a charity shop a few days later and chanced a ten bob gamble. Now, I’m not much of a reader to be honest, or at least not of writers more modern than say Plutarch, Thucydides, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Plato, or Aristophanes; anything Greek, the odd Roman now and then, but factual history or plays, not mythology, never boring old fiction.

 

So, it surprised me just how much I enjoyed ‘The Road’ or rather not enjoyed but endured and admired it. It is a book whose themes those ancient scribes would only too readily recognise. Big themes and little men. The Gods versus Mother Nature. War and Love. Make no mistake this is one heavy book and it takes a lot out of the reader because the prose is so dense, so deliberately repetitive and the subject matter so unremittingly grim.

 

‘The Road’ is the story of a father and son making their way to the coast after an unspecified apocalypse. Whether this catastrophe was natural or man-made is never made clear. The only clue McCarthy gives us is a flash and series of low rumbles. The Man (as McCarthy calls him, his son is The Boy) is running a bath at 1.30am and his pregnant wife asks him why he’s taking a bath at that hour. But he’s not running the water to take a bath. It’s as if he knows what has happened and what will happen.

 

That’s the only hint the author gives as to how the couple survive what millions didn’t and water plays a significant part in the story, because in this nightmare world it never stops raining and clean, uncontaminated water is in short supply.  The other survivors keep alive by burning fires, looting shops and houses and when that runs out, consuming each other. It’s a Mad Max landscape of desperate cannibals and horrific victims yet the action, such as there is, is so underplayed, so sparsely used that the text becomes almost hypnotic, the sense of terror almost unbearable. Even without ever reading McCarthy before but having watched No Country, the familiar themes of paternal protection and men born out of time re-appear here.

 

The Man must protect his son at all costs, even though he is clearly dying from the polluted air around him. His mother has already committed suicide years earlier, using a flint in order to save a precious bullet and Father and Son are ‘eachother’s universe.’ He has a gun and three bullets and they go from day to day, night to night under their tarpaulin cover, pushing their few possessions in a shopping trolley (or cart as the Yanks say) through the desolate post-nuclear/apocalyptic landscape seeking refuge and sustenance and avoiding other potentially cannibalistic survivors. There are moments of true horror and unlike Mad Max, this Lord Of The Flies morality play, is all too believable. The only slight criticism I had with the plot was the parade of tribal warriors with their decorated spears and chained catamite slaves. Although a great image, it worked against the naturalism of the rest of the book.

 

McCarthy’s style takes some getting used to. He never punctuates any dialogue and although The Road has very little dialogue it’s still often difficult to make out who is speaking. His forte however, is the description of landscape and mechanical objects. That and  philosophical/Biblical tracts about man and his place in the universe. Many experts claim The Road is McCarthy’s masterpiece, the book he’s been working towards for over 40 years and it IS a masterpiece but after reading it I bought Blood Meridian, his 1985 novel about the Texan/Mexican/Apache wars of the 1840s. This was described as his masterpiece before 2006’s The Road and whereas I think that the later book is in some respects a more profound work, Blood Meridian is a much more entertaining read.       

 

God knows why this hasn’t been made into a film, although as with No Country and the forthcoming film version of The Road, how they manage to capture the often beautiful poetry of McCarthy’s prose has doubtless persuaded many directors and producers to swerve his work altogether. Or maybe the blood curdling nature of the book is just too much for Hollywood’s squeamish tastes. Make no mistake, this book makes James Ellroy looks like Enid Blyton. There are hackings and scalpings and torturings and more scalpings and stabbings and shootings and more scalpings and dead babies in trees and all manner of obscenities and what makes it all the worse is that each and every death and mutilation seems utterly convincing.

 

This was the REAL Wild West, not that heroic myth peddled by John Wayne and all the other cowboy revisionists. Even Clint Eastwood at his most nihilistic or Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah at their most blood thirsty have nothing on Blood Meridian. It’s a film, not for a gore merchant but an auteur, Lynch for example would be ideal. For this is a book about men and the fate of men in a Godless universe and luckily McCarthy gives us the person of The Judge to voice his own Nietzsche meets Dawkins philosophy (by the time of The Road he’s reverted back to absolutionism which is fair enough because he’s now into his 70s and death’s not so far away).

 

In amongst the story’s of The Kid and his travels with Glanton’s band of sadistic mercenaries, the massive, demonic, hairless presence of The Judge (I saw him as Colonel Kurtz meets The Man With Shades from The Machinist) becomes an almost mystical character, collecting stones and plants and placing them in his botanist’s ledger. Although one of the most blood thirsty men in an already blood thirsty posse, The Judge is given to campfire philosophising, much to the scorn of his companions (never friends, it’s dog eat dog in this world).

 

Take this for example.

 

“In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

 

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

 

The squatters in their rags, nodded among themselves and were soon reckoning him correct, this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools.”

 

Or this about The Kid towards the end of the book.

 

“He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the Western Sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”

 

Wow! Blood Meridian is full of such Holy Hogwash. A few pages later, The Judge is at it again….

 

“The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in amaze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”

 

Without giving the ending away, The Judge assumes an almost supernatural dimension, he has literally become the Lord Of The Dance and whether Man or Beast, Angel or Devil he weaves his peverse way via magic and medicine throughout the story, both saviour and assassin. To be honest, for me there were a few too many voids and blue landscapes and although his prose is artfully crafted and his descriptive passages often magnificent (there’s a superb description of an apache attack that morphs into a Dali-esque nightmare vision for example), McCarthy sometimes overplays his hand. But, in the end, as McCartney once sang’ the love you take is equal to the love you make.’ McCarthy, I figure, would disagree.

 

                

 

 

             



 

 

 


 

 

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