Friday, February 02, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”

So ends the modern human race in Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Road. I lack the superlatives to accurately praise McCarthy’s work in this arena. The Road is a stark, frighteningly bleak novel of post nuclear holocaust America, through which two characters, The Man, and The Boy travel, in an effort to reach the sea.

The Road is a road novel, of an epic, wandering journey. Its sustained tone and bleak imagery are beyond powerful. It is a compelling vision of what a purgatorial world of ash might well be. There are few colors save for the orange of fires and the crimson of blood.

The Man protects the boy. The boy tries to understand the world his father is leaving him. The language grates against your soul and bones.

A passage chosen at random:

“They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts. Cowled in their blankets against the cold and their breath smoking, shuffling through the black and silky drifts. They were crossing the broad coastal plain where the secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could. Houses or barns or under the bank of a roadside ditch with the blankets pulled over their heads and the noon sky black as the cellars of hell.”

Among McCarthy’s paragraphs, this passage is not particularly powerful (though it is), it’s just the first one I opened the book to and jammed my thumb towards. McCarthy’s voice never falters. It’s a feat of wordcraft every bit as powerful as Blood Meridian, and dealing with a subject which is much more topical.

Ever want to know what it’s like to be one of the last humans alive at the beginning of nuclear winter? Can you imagine the crushing bleakness of trudging through a world of ash, coughing up your lungs as radiation sickness consumes you, and wondering what will become of your son when you are gone? Want to envision what kinds of life go on in this circle of Dante’s world?

“…life in the deep. Great squids propelling themselves over the floor of the sea in the cold darkess. Shuttling past like trains, eyes the size of saucers.”

This is not Jericho. This is not the feel good Apocalypse. This is the hopelessness of cities buried under radioactive ash, of slavers, of sickness, of death. There are no plants during a nuclear winter. There are few living animals upon the surface of the planet. It’s terribly cold and the sun’s heat is blocked from reaching the planet. There are no stars, and the moon is not visible. The societies of man are vanished, and those ragged survivors who don’t give up immediately face a long journey to perdition down on McCarthy’s Road.

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper by John D. MacDonald

The second John MacDonald novel I read was every bit as quick, but a good deal less interesting than The Deep Blue Goodbye.

Travis McGee goes to a small community in Florida where a beautiful young woman is busy flushing her life down the drain. Investigations, fist-fights, drinking, and boat chases ensue. McGee nearly finds love but is thwarted.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still first class pulp ripoff-noir stuff. It’s just that first class tripe is still tripe.

Entertaining, fast, violent, and characterized by the same sorts of “look at the wreckage of our modern lives” observations as MacDonald’s other work. Great for students of the genre, largely already lost in the back lots of used bookstores for everyone else.

The Lonely Planet Thailand

The Lonely Planet guides to various countries have long been a staple for backpackers and the adventurous mainstream traveler. This one is thorough, detailed, and possessed of a great number of useful maps, phone numbers, etc. At over eight-hundred pages it’s also quite a bit too big to take with you on the road. So it’s a helpful book to read through in detail BEFORE you buy your plane tickets and plan your itinerary.

So that’s what I did. Over the course of several rainy nights in Vancouver I plowed through all the descriptions of the different cities and provinces, skimmed the restaurant and hotel reviews for the most part, then selected three destinations for The Professor and my trip there over New Years.

This is a book review site, not a travelogue, so I’ll skip all the details on the trip, except to say that Thailand is an incredible place, which I look forward to returning to—and that the Lonely Planet: Thailand helped prepare us for the trip quite well.

My only complaint is that the section on health towards the end of the book tends to be a bit scarier than it needs to be. It’s got grisly descriptions of all the various jungle diseases that one MIGHT contract; enough to make the faint of heart say, “I’m NEVER going there!” Which would be a major mistake…