This one didn’t do it for me. It seemed like at least half of the book was descriptions of where the protagonist (the Kid) was riding, walking, or sleeping. They are somewhat interesting descriptions and include most of the things that mark McCarthy’s writing: run-on sentences with lots of “ands” but no commas, compound words and derivations that are barely comprehensible, and often-arcane vocabulary that 99% of readers will not understand. But they are still just descriptions, and they take up almost half the book. That’s about 150 pages of description.
They do have that flow and rhythm that make McCarthy’s stuff so hypnotic, and even beautiful, but I’ve been needing more substance from my books of late (I actually had the same criticism of the last book I read, Raymond Queneau‘s The Flight of Icarus). I’ve been realizing that the books I enjoy most have a captivating story, and unfortunately story is the thing that McCarthy seems to least prioritize here, placing his emphasis instead on mood, style, theme and arguably character.
A good example of my craving for story is that by far the two most captivating parts for me were stories told within the book, the first being Tobin’s magnificent description of the Judge leading the company to gunpowder, and the second being the Judge’s story of the harnessmaker. Perhaps they were so fascinating to me because they omitted the huge quantity of description that was otherwise omnipresent. When these two mini-narratives occurred in such close proximity to each other, I began to get hopeful that the book was finally getting more interesting. Alas it wasn’t to be as no other stories ever appeared while the larger, mostly plotless narrative remained mostly plotless.
I suppose there is a plot though it’s not readily discernible. If I had to name it I would say it’s about the Kid wandering and encountering the Abyss but attempting to fight it’s pull. Again, that’s more theme than plot, but that’s pretty much what there is. The Judge is a great villain; you could read him as either Satan or Death or God with equal accuracy (your choice being dependent on your general level of optimism I suppose). But he’s very creepy and the book is at it’s best when he’s around either speaking his craziness or doing something horrific.
And speaking of horrific, wow is that a good word for this book. I mean I guess you know what you’re getting into with the epigraphs dealing with cruelty, death and violence. . . but still, this takes “bleak” to a whole new level. There are actions described here that you will not be able to unread, and that make the stuff in Child of God and Outer Dark look almost Disney.
But that’s really the problem: there’s so much of it and you just get beat with it over and over again, in addition to the monotonous descriptions, that it loses its impact pretty early on. The climactic horror in Outer Dark will stay with me much longer than any occurrences in this book, just because you could feel everything build up to it, and it was by far the worst thing you had read and it came at the end. In this one there is no “by far the worst” horror. There are just dying, mutilated, rotting things of all shapes and sizes on every single page. There’s no shock value when it’s all horrible.
I’m not squeamish about what I read, I want to be clear. Hell, I cut my reading teeth on Christopher Pike which led straight to King, Koontz and Rice. My point is that I need more from a novel than just a litany of horrors expressing that existence is abominable and there’s no making it better. Okay, that’s one perspective, granted, but not the one I choose to utilize in daily life. But even if that is the author’s perspective, I can get behind a book that presents it in a more compelling way, for example a book like Journey to the End of the Night, which I read recently and loved.
Here though, it just gets old. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong and McCarthy is really a little more optimistic than all that. Perhaps he’s just criticizing white culture, though brown people are not any nicer here. Perhaps it’s a critique of war, exposing the inhumanity it breeds. Okay, I can dig, but I would also be able to dig with half as many pages as McCarthy uses.
Perhaps I’ve just been contaminated by Ian’s vitriolic review forThe Road and now struggle to get past McCarthy’s apparently pretentious style. Perhaps Ian has been my Toto, tugging the curtain back from the Wizard. Perhaps I just prefer the “Later McCarthy” works (it would be interesting to re-read No Country for Old Men and see if I still love it). I guess time will tell, because I still have the The Border Trilogy on my shelf and I’ll get to it sooner or later. Or perhaps I wasn’t in a sufficiently contemplative, meditative mood that the perpetual descriptions veritably demanded. Or perhaps I’m just not feeling charitable enough (which, ironically, might be McCarthy’s fault after reading this book).
Either way, I guess it’s important to read as “the major aesthetic achievement of any living American writer,” as one critic lauds. It’s certainly important for McCarthy fans. I don’t know if it’s one you really enjoy though, so maybe go in not expecting to. For me, sadly, it will be the book that led to me removing McCarthy from my “Favorite Authors” list. Wouldn’t it be pretentious to keep him up there when I’ve only really liked two out of the five of his books I’ve read?