Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Writing that doesn't hold your damn hand (The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy)


He was very cold. He waited. It was very still. He could see by his breath how the wind lay and he watched his breath appear and vanish and appear and vanish constantly before him in the cold and he waited a long time. Then he saw them coming. Loping and twisting. Dancing. Tunneling their noses in the snow. Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again.

There were seven of them and they passed within twenty feet of where he lay. He could see their almond eyes in the moonlight. He could hear their breath. He could feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air. They bunched and nuzzled and licked one another. Then they stopped. They stood with their ears cocked. Some with one forefoot raised to their chest. They were looking for him. He did not breathe. They did not breathe. They stood. Then they turned and quietly trotted on. When he got back to the house Boyd was awake but he didn't tell him where he'd been nor what he'd seen. He never told anybody.

Cormac McCarthy's writing is so precise and so packed with detail that in thinking about what I was going to write about this passage, I was sure I had read about that crunching and squeaking sound that the snow makes when it's really cold out. I had heard it in reading that scene and I realized that at the point when the wolf held its forefoot raised I had scarcely breathed because I didn't want the wolves to hear me. McCarthy does not give you a list, he gives you one or two items very thoroughly. Patiently - leaving some space for you. His writing in The Crossing involves not just the senses he enlivens with his words, it fills my whole being with the sense of what it is like to be there so that I am not having the scene imagined for me, I am imagining it with his help and create details with my own senses. He's not holding my damn hand, is what I'm saying.

The cabin when they opened it was dark and musty and had about it a waxy smell like freshkilled meat. Their father stood in the door a moment and then entered. In the front room was an old sofa, a bed, a desk. They went through the kitchen and then on through to the mudroom at the back of the house. There in the dusty light from the one small window on shelves of roughsawed pine stood a collection of fruitjars and bottles with ground glass stoppers and old apothecary jars all bearing antique octagon labels edged in red upon which in Echols' neat script were listed contents and dates. In the jars dark liquids. Dried viscera. Liver, gall, kidneys. The inward parts of the beast who dreams of man and has so dreamt in running dreams a hundred thousand years and more. Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his clan and kin and rout them from their house. A god insatiable whom no ceding could appease nor any measure of blood. The jars stood webbed in dust and the light among them made of the little room with its chemic glass a strange basilica dedicated to a practice as soon to be extinct among the trades of men as the beast to whom it owed its being. Their father took down one of the jars and turned it in his hand and set it back again precisely in its round track of dust...

I am standing right there. Those octagonal labels with the red border hang in my mind for minutes after. The waxy smell puts me with one foot in that cellar in their lives and the other in my own memory of an old fashioned butcher shop with sawdust on the floor, rolls of white wax paper, and bloody meat in fat hands - because that is my source for that smell which sears my nostrils like coldness.

I didn't think I would be able to read anything with all my studying for finals, but the first forty pages of this novel whipped by last night before I knew it. My final final is this afternoon and I'm taking this book along for the long commute back afterwards. Soon, very soon, I intend to do some serious reading!

5 comments:

Sheila O'Malley said...

Nobody better than Cormac McCarthy. The man blows me AWAY.

TJ said...

My you do make me want to read this book. Good luck on your last test, Ted. And do enjoy your reading time on the way home.

varietyofwords said...

I'm reading All the Pretty Horses right now. I'm almost two thirds of the way through and still not sure what I think of it. I have loved the previous three McCarthy novels I've read. I should know by the end of today whether I'll be moving on to this one.

Sheila O'Malley said...

The inward parts of the beast who dreams of man and has so dreamt in running dreams a hundred thousand years and more. Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his clan and kin and rout them from their house. A god insatiable whom no ceding could appease nor any measure of blood.

See it's that kind of passage that he does like no other. It takes guts to write like that. Serious macho GUTS. To be not universal - but .... like he is writing from the cold reaches of outer space between the stars. Blood Meridien is so full of writing like that that I felt like i was on mushrooms half the time. It was difficult to process - and it never feels "put on" or self-important ... He writes what that landscape feels like. If you've ever driven through Death Valley and imagined the pioneers traveling thru that with no roads and just horses and buggies ... that landscape takes on a character of almost smothering malevolence ... It wants to "get" you, it YEARNS to swallow you up ... No wonder the history of the West is so brutal. It had to be.

He's a master. Nobody can touch him.

Framed said...

I've only read "All the Pretty Horses", but you describe his style perfectly. It's not a pretty story but his descriptions put you right there with the characters.