Thursday, October 8, 2009

On the Road with Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's book, The Road, is number one on the AbeBooks' customers' list of the Top Ten Most Depressing Reads. We added it to the collection in April of 2007, and by the time I had time to read it, I was not in the frame of mind to survive it. Last weekend, my sis and I took our fall sister trip and the waves of laughter that rolled us home left a vast store of endorphines on the beach. I spent some of that euphoria the last two nights reading The Road.

Let no one tell you it is depressing. It is the most hopeful of books, one in which there is nothing material upon which to base hope, no future, no brighter tomorrow, yet the light refuses to go out.

In the apocalyptic future, in a dead world of ash and burnt-out cities, in a world where only a tiny spark of life survives with nothing but itself to feed upon, a father and son travel the road from the cold north of what was America toward the southern coast, and warmth. The mother, understanding that there is no life left to be lived, has embraced death and left her two males to walk the bleak path alone.

The boy asks two questions of his father, again and again, whether for his own reassurance or for the father's remembrance. Are we the good guys? Do we carry the fire?

The bad guys are capturing and holding people to breed and eat. That 's all there is left of living sustenance. Those who refuse to cannibalize humanity forage for what remnant of canned goods others have overlooked, and it is obvious that as time continues to pass, the only hope of survival will finally lie in destroying one another. Ultimately, Death will not be cheated.

Yet, in this burnt-out world where man-directed flames have destroyed all that can sustain life, the fire the good guys carry takes on a poignant meaning. The boy carries the fire and the father carries the boy, though the father does not have the light. Once we, the readers, understand this painful truth, the author spins out the ending for us, honest and sad and correct. We are ready to accept it when it comes. It is both reassurance and warning.

I am in awe of this writer. He actually accomplishes what Hemingway and Joyce attempted. His writing is spare, stark in its simplicity, but like a poem that does not reveal that it is poetry. Fragmented. With only essential punctuation. He draws us in with the cadence of modern speech and opens our world to us using form as function.

And yet, he is kind. There is no point at which the reader finds himself on the brink of collapse or screaming for relief. McCarthy gives us vignettes of simplicity just a beat before we realize we need them. He tends us well. There are three moments in the book where the travelers are allowed the comfort of shelter and food--moments essential to the father who carries the corruption of the old culture, the need for the comforts of the corrupted culture that has been destroyed. The boy does not need them. He transcends the material. But we, the readers who are living in the culture that gives rise to this devastating end, we must have these moments to sustain our ability to follow the path to the end.

McCarthy tells us the truth. Like most of us, he carries the fire, but the fire is not in him.

He knows.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Say It Isn't So, Joe!

Oh no! Not a sequel! Please, say it isn't so!

It took me a while to get used to the writing style of Dr. Joe D. Dillsaver in These Bones Shall Rise, a mystery/adventure set in eastern Oklahoma, but I liked his hero, Doctor SK Ross, and followed the story to its non-conclusion. With all the loose ends left dangling, I thought--Well, he's a first time author; maybe he couldn't figure out how to rescue his characters from the danger he had put them in. Then the horrible thought came--A Sequel! Oh No! Another Series Writer! ...and this is a home town boy. Well, a home state fellow, anyway. That pretty much insures that I'll have to buy the next book--and the economic downturn has left us really short on cash. Sigh.

I enjoyed the book. The short, simple sentences insure grammatical correctness--near-abouts, anyway--but also give the book just the right flavor. It reads like a book written by a criminal justice professor (CJP), and it feels like a gentle excursion into a CJP's fantasy. It's formula all the way, from the bad guys holed up in the backwoods eastern Oklahoma cave cloning drones to take over the world to the desperate run for cover when the cave explodes. There's ancient Christian relics, a worldwide search for clues, the Cherokee elder, truly evil (but disconcertingly likeable) right-wing conspirators, and the amateur sleuth--all the elements of an adventure story aka movie set-up.

What makes the book work is Dr. Dillsaver himself as he draws his hero, SK, in his own image. As I read, it's like reading something one of my former students might have written--very personal, very intimate, very confessional. As the story spins out to its non-conclusion, I find myself enjoying the evening visit with the author. In this case, the story is nothing, and the characters exist just to provide words for the author, and the author is a pleasant companion for the cool Oklahoma evenings we are beginning to enjoy.

And, yes, I will purchase the sequel.