Wednesday, March 3, 2010

CORMAC MCCARTHY - Darkness visible

I have been somewhat remiss with this project in that I promised movies, music and literature but have been pretty tardy in delivering the latter two.

OK, so here's some literature with a capital 'L'. I figured I would jump in feet first with a little something about how I discovered Cormac McCarthy whom I consider to be the greatest living writer.

I first cottoned on to Cormac when I came across a copy of Blood Meridian in a bookstore some years ago. I believe it was 1990 or thereabouts. I remember checking out the Picador rotunda, which always had some good material, and coming across this title by a guy called Cormac McCarthy.

Two things grabbed me immediately. One was that the book had two titles: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West, and the second was the cover featured a very cool painting of a guy riding a horse... and he was wearing a cowboy hat.

Now this is a genre that hasn't exactly left huge imprints on the literary world (with all due respect to Louis L and Zane G). On its own, maybe not such a big deal. But then the critical comments on the back cover were really something. I mean one dude compared it to Moby Dick and The Iliad, two of the most respected works in literary history. Other guys were mentioning Faulkner, Heironymous Bosch, Edgar Allen Poe and Flannery O'Connor.

So there I stood in that dusty bookstore with this paperback in my hands, thinking: holy shit, what the hell is this?

Well I read that book and it took me on journey (literally and figuratively, the story covers a lot of miles). The language was like nothing else I had encountered. It was ornate, out of history, biblical almost. The sentences were long - really long. And the subject matter was insanely dark. It was so violent it was surreal. In one scene a guy got his head chopped off with a bowie knife. I was in literary heaven.

Hell yes, McCarthy's stuff is unlike any other. OK, there's Faulkner, but he never had bowie knives (not to my knowledge anyway). Not only does he write like a man possessed, but his subject matter is singularly bizarre. Gothic doesn't begin to describe it. And there are no cellphones in his books, no laptops, no internet speak or Dr Phil pyschobabble. Its like the last 50 years just haven't happened.

Plus he writes the best dialogue in the history of the written word. And he does it without speech quotes. The dude is just plain bad-ass.

In a nutshell, Blood Meridian deals with actual historical events that look place around 1855 in the American Southwest. Around that time the Mexican government, determined to rid itself of a persistent Apache problem, offered a bounty of $1 for every Apache scalp that could be harvested.

But the authorities didn't particularly care if the scalps were Apache or not, so long as they were Indian. Men, women, children. It was all equal to these gents, so long as they were cutting back the pesky redskin population.

Naturally this potential boon attracted a bunch of people for whom violence was a natural state of being. Among the most notorious was John Glanton, an ex-US Army soldier and mercenary who's fiance had reported been killed by the Apache.

Glanton duly assembled a bunch of money hungry ne'er-do-wells and off they went, carving a wide red path before them. Realising that Apache were not an easy target, Glanton's men chose instead to raid peaceful Indian tribes and even Mexican citizenry. As long as the hair was black and shiny it was fair game for these boys.

McCarthy revisits this period from the point of view of the fictional main character, known only as the Kid. We follow him on his travels as he falls in with Glanton and his merry men, which includes Judge Holden, a freakish personage over seven feet tall and completely hairless with a distinctly apocalyptic view of the world.

As the story unfolds the bodies pile up and mayhem of all sorts ensues. But the plot is incidental to the real excitement, which is McCarthy's use of language. His fondness for archiac words, those incredibly long sentences, combined with his immense knowledge of the subject matter and the landscapes of the American South West (he travelled extensively through the region while researching the book), all adds up to a work of stunning power and beauty.

Consider this extract, as an example:

They grew gaunted and lank under the white suns of those days and their hollow burnedout eyes were like those of noctambulants surprised by day. Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on some grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered. Even the judge grew silent and speculative. He'd spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all. They rode on and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of graybeards, gray men, gray horses.

The mountains to the north lay sunwise in corrugated folds and the days were cool and the nights were cold and they sat about the fire each in his round of darkness in that round of dark while the idiot watched from his cage at the edge of the light. The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.

The book is filled with such examples, unforgettable passages that seem to have sprung from some ancient leather-bound tome, dug up from beneath the floorboards of a house long since abandoned to the elements.

It was the beginning of a journey of discovery that after many years and several more works of equal substance, is still not over. Now, when a new McCarthy is rumoured to be in the offing, it is an event of some magnitude, like a total solar eclipse.

Unfortunately, the world at large - including Oprah and Hollywood - have since discovered McCarthy too and he's no longer the best kept secret he once was. His acolytes have become legion.

Nontheless, that day I picked up Blood Meridian off the Picador rotunda will always be mine. I still have that book and my McCarthy collection is now pretty much complete. The last two of his works I have acquired were both first editions and they take pride of place on my bookshelf next to the well-worn copy of Blood Meridian, the one that started it all.

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