Thursday, May 29, 2008

Writing like the wind (Books - The Crossing by Corman McCarthy)

When I'm not reading it, my thought is that it is too intense and I want to avoid it, but as soon as I pick up Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing it sucks me into its maelstrom again. It is mezmerising in the same sort of the way as a car crash, you just cannot help looking.

Boyd dug out the pocketbook and unsnapped it and took out the coin and Billy gave it to the old man and the old man took it with grace and dignity and removed his hat and put it on again and they shook hands all around and the old many pocketed the coin and turned and walked out across the little blighted zocalo and disappeared up the street without looking back. When he was gone the men on the bench began to laugh. One of them rose to better see the map.

Es una fantasma, he said.
Si, si. Claro.
Como? Porque el viejo esta loco es como.

Billy stood looking at the map. No es correcto? he said.

The man threw up his hands. He said what they beheld was but a decoration. He said that anyway it was not so much a question of a correct map but of any map at all. He said that in that country were fires and earthquakes and floods and that one needed to know the country itself and not simply the landmarks therein. Besides, he said, when had that old man last journeyed to those mountains? Or journeyed anywhere at all? His map was after all not really so much a map as a picture of a voyage. And what voyage was that? And when?

Un dibujo de unviaje, he said. Un viaje pasado, un viaje antiguo.

He threw up one hand in dismissal. As if no more could be said. Billy looked at the other three men on the bench. They watched with a certain brightness of eye so that he wondered if he were being made a fool of. But the one seated at the right leaned forward and tapped the ash from his cigarette and addressed the man standing and said that as far as that went there were certainly other dangers to a journey than losing one's way. He said that plans were one thing and journeys another. He said it was a mistake to discount the good will inherent in the old man's desire to guide them for it too must be taken into account and would in itself lend strength and resolution to them in their journey.

The man who was standing weighed these words and then erased them in the air before him with a slow fanning motion of his forefinger. He said that the jovenes could hardly be expected to apportion credence in the matter of the map. He said that in any case a bad map was worse than no map at all for it engendered in the traveler a false confidence and might easily cause him to set aside those instincts which would otherwise guide him if he would but place himself in their care. He said that to follow a false map was to invite disaster. He gesture at the sketching in the dirt. As if to invite them to behold its futility. The second man on the bench nodded his agreement in this and said that the map in question was a folly and that the dogs in the street would piss upon it. But man on the right only smiled and said that for the matter the dogs would piss upon their graves as well and how was this an argument?
The Crossing is full of these mini stories within the greater story. In the greater story, Billy, a young man, tracks a she-wolf , but once he has trapped her he ends up saving her life and trying to bring it back to the mountains from which it had come, over the Mexican border from Arizona. In that journey, he assumes responsibility for another living thing and grows up. The experiences he meets along the way are the cruel and violent saga that are this story - in that way the book has an almost Dickensian feel - in that it is composed of the successive stories that occur to this young person on his journey. But its setting could not be more distinct from Dickens. It is a western composed of deliberate detail upon detail - you feel the sun on your neck and hear the creak of the leather of your saddle. McCarthy is telling the tale of the formation of an individualist spirit, and in that way this book feels very much an American story.

Sometimes the narrative voice adopts this biblical-epic-voiceover quality:

After many a youthful wandering this man appeared at last in the capital and there he worked for some years. He was a bearer of messages. He carried a satchel of leather and canvas secured with a lock. He had no way to know what the messages said nor had he any curiosity concerning them...

I don't know how he pulls it off, but I never crack a smile. It reminds me of when I would direct opera in a big opera house, once we got into the theater for technical rehearsals I sat at a table with the design team out in the house while the cast was on stage. There was such a distance between us, that they gave me this microphone which would broadcast my voice so that it could be heard in the orchestra pit and on stage if I wanted to adjust something or tell everyone where we were going to pick up after a pause. They called it the "god-mike." It's like these narrative segments are spoken on the god-mike. But these stories seem to come at just the right time. The writing is so self assured and inevitable. The voice has the certainty of the wind - powerful, elemental, and you cannot question it - it is pointless to say 'it shouldn't be windy now.' You cannot argue with the wind.


Anonymous said...


I JUST finished the third book of this trilogy. I just "read like the wind" through these 3 books. I have a hard time speaking about them. I'm about to give them to a friend of mine for his birthday, and, I don't know if you've read them all, but I'm not sure what kind of a "gift" I'm giving him.

I am a total Cormac McCarthy fanatic! I LOVED your comments about him.


Ted said...

David - I haven't read them all, this is my first of his, in fact. They're unflinching, honest, vast, full of feeling - how can you get a better gift than that?

Anonymous said...

OK, this is book 2, you MUST go back and read All the Pretty Horses, which is book 1. Both book 1 and book 2 stand completely alone and then Billy Parham and John Grady Cole (protagonist book 1) come back together in book 3.

The first book I read was The Road and I was talking to a friend of mine and he said, with all sincerity, "I envy the experience of Cormac McCarthy you're about to have."

He then directed me to Blood Meridian, then this Border Trilogy. Now I'm off to get Sutree.

What a writer.

Hope you're doing well my friend. Just yesterday I was watching Harold and Maude and I always think of you when I see it. I remember vividly going to see that for the first time in Chicago with you.

Ted said...

After this Cormac McCarthy experience I will be back for more. I don't know why I was tempted to start in the middle.

That night at Harold and Maude was a laugh riot - literally.