What does the future hold?
Next Friday, I’ll be featuring a guest post in the form of an interview between Gingernuts of Horror Jim McLeod and Christopher Golden, author of the Borderkind trilogy as well as a series of tie-in books to Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series. I haven’t met Christopher, however, my instructor at one of the Maui Writer’s Retreats was Nancy Holder, who collaborated with Christopher Golden on several of the Buffy tie-ins. And don’t try pretending you’re not a fan of the Buffy series. At least not until you’ve watched more than one or two episodes (but more on that next week).
But without further ado…
I was originally going to write this post simply as a discussion/review of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (and this post will still end up there), but then I started thinking about the other books of his that I’ve read. I have to be honest here, “with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality,” I’ve developed something of a writer’s man-crush on Cormac McCarthy (my wife is pretty impressed with him as well, but I’m not jealous. I promise.)
As with many recent McCarthy fans, I started by reading The Road. As a high school English teacher, I wasn’t sure I’d make it past the first few pages with his sparse (and I mean sparse) use of punctuation. If you haven’t read a Cormac McCarthy book, you’ll be very surprised by the lack of A- any punctuation marks around dialogue, and B- very few dialogue attributes/tags (he said, she said, etc…). In the case of The Road, except for the rare moments when the father and son run into a third party, you might go pages without any dialogue attributes.
Keeping in mind that The Road was the first McCarthy book I’d read, at first I thought he was using it as a device to represent the sparse, cut-to-the-bone feel of the whole story. Then I read No Country for Old Men.
And everything else I’ve read by him. Same lack of punctuation and dialogue attributes.
Here’s why Cormac McCarthy (and others… Hemingway comes to mind) can do this. And this is probably one of the biggest reasons I think you should be reading Cormac McCarthy (funny that it’s wrapped in what is the antithesis of my day job). His voice is so strong and well-crafted that you don’t need to be given the normal visual clues that the writer is switching from narration to dialogue (well, okay, there are still a few moments where I get a little lost. But those are few and far between).
You get to know the characters so intimately, and he speaks so clearly in their individual voices that you just know who’s speaking without having to be told. I will admit that I haven’t read that much Hemingway (much to the chagrin of my good friend and memoirist Brandon R. Schrand), but I remember many similar passages of dialogue in The Sun Also Rises.
If you’re a writer, you know this is something towards which we aspire. If you’re not a writer, now you know that this something towards which we writers aspire.
Before I go on, a word about The Road. Besides being bleak, one common complaint that I’ve heard about The Road from many genre readers is that it didn’t hold their attention, and I think this applies to the post-apocalyptic setting.
I have to admit that the horror writer in me really wanted to know all the details of the apocalypse that brought the world to the desolate point where we find the father and son (oh, and these are their character names, by the way. Again, can you say “sparse”?). However, I quickly realized it wasn’t a story about that. It was a story about the father and son, just as The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet wasn’t really a story about the feud between the Montagues and Capulets (which is never really explained either). It was about Romeo and Juliet, who just happened to find themselves in those circumstances.
And I challenge you to find another story besides The Road with so little dialogue but such an amazingly powerful relationship between two of its characters (seriously, this will be part of the “What do I want from you?”)
I recognize that I’ve said much of this already in my post “My own Works Cited list: 10 books that have inspired me,” so I’ll move on.
In addition to No Country for Old Men and The Road, I’ve also read the first two books of the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing) with plans to read the third book as well as Blood Meridian. I’m not sure what else to say about him except that he just has an amazing way to weave a story… or to spin a yarn, as the ol’ timers might say. These are characters you believe in and care about. And there are settings that are as alive as the characters, even in their desolation.
And there’s something for every type of reader. When I think of All the Pretty Horses (which I was hesitant to read after hearing they made a movie with Matt Damon, but which I loved) has history, travel (at least into Mexico…*- see below), Western, romance, and action.
*- A caveat for readers. Several of McCarthy’s books will often have snippets of conversation (or sometimes long passages) in Spanish without much explanation of what is being said. While I speak what I like to call “getting around Spanish,” this aspect of his books was frustrating for my wife who tells me that she reads every word, even though she’s not sure what they’re saying. At certain points it seems like they must be saying something important.
Why you should read No Country for Old Men even if you didn’t love the movie.
In 1980 southwest Texas, Llewelyn Moss … stumbles across several dead men, a bunch of heroin and $2.4 million in cash. The bulk of the novel is a gripping man-on-the-run sequence relayed in terse, masterful prose as Moss, who’s taken the money, tries to evade … Chigurh, an icy psychopathic murderer armed with a cattle gun and a dangerous philosophy of justice. Also concerned about Moss’s whereabouts is Sheriff Bell, an aging lawman struggling with his sense that there’s a new breed of man (embodied in Chigurh) whose destructive power he simply cannot match.- Publisher’s Weekly
First, let me say that I love the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed the movie version of No Country for Old Men. They did a great job of capturing in a limited time many of the scenes from the book, but in my opinion, they didn’t adequately capture the essence.
Before I go into my spoiler alert, I’ll just say that the book has a great mix of third person point of view and first person point of view from the perspective of Sheriff Bell. And when you finish the book, you realize that McCarthy has done an amazing job of giving you the ending (or at least a major aspect of it) almost from the beginning of the book via these first person chapters. And Sheriff Bell is a character you won’t forget anytime soon (and you definitely won’t forget Anton Chigurh, the “bad guy,” either).
This is a skill I try to put into my writing. In my opinion a good story can be read multiple times with each new read revealing new information or contributing more significant meaning to certain things which were seemingly insignificant the first time around. As a writer, you don’t want to give away the ending, but you want to plant little clues that a reader will either remember at the end or catch the next time through.
SPOILER ALERT: The following section discusses the end of the No Country for Old Men
I need to start by saying that I saw the movie before reading the book. Usually this makes reading the book a task for me, but such was far from the case with No Country for Old Men.
As I mentioned, in my opinion, I didn’t think the movie adequately covered the essence of the story, but rather focused more on the pursuit of Llewelyn Moss by Anton Chigurh. In the book, with so much more information directly from Sheriff Bell, the pursuit seems almost subplot to what the story is really about, which is Sheriff Bell’s coming to terms with the fact that he no longer fits in today’s law enforcement world. Or maybe even today’s world in general. And this is the better story of the two.
So while the second time through the movie after having read the book, I definitely caught some of those little hints (Tommy Lee Jones’s brief voiceover at the beginning, his tired expressions as opposed to the normal steely Tommy Lee Jones looks), I felt like it was an almost unjustified (and I emphasize “almost”) ending when Sheriff Bell gives up searching for Chigurh. And this after watching Chigurh getting away basically scot-free. It was just an overall surprising ending, and while I could come to grips with the more familiar latter surprise, I had a harder time with Sheriff Bell’s decision.
Seriously? That’s the ending? I remember thinking after finishing the movie. I mean, great movie. But seriously?
Then I read the book. And then it all made sense, and made the story so much better. So again, even if you only kind of liked the movie (and especially if you loved it), it’s a short book and a quick read, and you should definitely pick it up.
What do I want from you?
Have you read any Cormac McCarthy? What were your thoughts? And as I challenged earlier, I would love any recommendations you have with this kind of depth of character shown in so few words. Or if you are also a McCarthy fan, recommendations of other authors I might like along his vein.
And don’t forget to check back next Friday for Jim McLeod’s interview with Christopher Golden.