When I started this list, I mentioned that I had a reading order in mind for the books. It’s an order based on very subjective (and very arguable, I’m sure) feelings of ‘hard’ versus ‘easy’. Fahrenheit 451 is a great book but I consider it an ‘easy’ book. It’s fast paced, kind of fun, and a quick read. That’s not a knock either. The idea was to snare the young man who doesn’t read and you’re not going to do that with War and Peace or Moby Dick or really anything with a decent movie version out. The tones of the books (also very subjective) seem to get darker and more intense as they go along. And that brings us to the graduate course in this super-truncated literary education.
Cormac McCarthy is less subjective, less arguable. His books are not ‘easy’; the man doesn’t use quotation marks! The tone is bleak, desolate, relentless, dark…yeah all of those coupled with rape, incest, murder and other cheerful bits of violence. That cheerful was sarcasm. Somehow, though, his prose manages to be beautiful, his characters compelling, and his storytelling is imaginative and gripping.
No Country for Old Men is McCarthy at his best. It takes place in the West. Texas to be exact apparently circa the early eighties. It is at the same time the Mythic West of America but he subverts the reader’s expectation of that Mythos to explore things like the meaning (if any) of bravery, the meaning (if any) of right and wrong, the meaning (or existence) of morality, and the true depth of darkness one (apparently) human being is capable of. If that all sounds heavy, it is, but I don’t think it’s on purpose. McCarthy doesn’t appear to be subversive for its own sake. I think he just really sees things this way and those are the stories he tells.
No Country is simple enough. A blue collar kind of guy finds a bag full of money. The manner of the finding leaves no doubt that this is blood money from across the border. He takes the money and the cartel is after him. He makes a run of it and he seems to be doing well but it’s not just gun thugs after him. Also after him is a truly remorseless killer who doesn’t like to get blood on his clothes. Also a sheriff named Ed Tom.
Okay maybe it’s not that simple and if you haven’t read it that little synopsis will probably just confuse you. If it’s not simple in subject matter it is brutally simple in style. This story has been taken down to bare metal. Then had an edge put on that metal. Then that edge is honed and stropped until you can shave with it. No word is wasted or out of place and despite that kind of work from the writer, the book still expects a lot from the reader. McCarthy never once tells us, as narrator, who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy or what motivates a character or even what they look like. Everything we think or feel about a character is something we have to take based on what they do or what someone else in the book says about them. That takes a certain something from a writer…balls? insanity? reckless endangerment? Most of us as writers are concerned (read terrified) that we won’t get what we are thinking across to the reader. So we modify and explain and ramble on. Whether McCarthy has faith in his writing, faith in his reader, or just doesn’t give a shit, I don’t know. But it makes a hell of a good read and an affecting read. I would hope the experience of having a writer expect something from you and finding you are up to it would hook you on reading forever.