By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Not to go all Singing Detective on you, but I’ve spent the past fortnight covered with hives brought on by some allergic reaction, perhaps to Jack Nicholson’s tainted-ham performance in The Departed. (Will the real Al Swearengen please stand up, please stand up?) While these itchy red welts have left me wallowing in self-pity — I pass my days in a bathrobe, like a Proust without the talent — they have had the benefit of letting me catch up with the latest books.
Critics hate to admit it, but nobody picks up a book innocently. I was biased against The Road even before the dust cover told me that it was “destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.”
McCarthy is the kind of novelist the East Coast literary establishment loves to fetishize, a desert-cured outsider with a highfalutin prose style and a reluctance to do interviews. This new book looked to be an easy one to love, a short, fashionably apocalyptic tale written in brief sections, far easier to read than Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s amazing, exhausting novel, which tests you with its ecstatic violence and habit of flaunting the many terroirs of its literary lineage, from Judea to Oxford, Mississippi.
But as Fats Waller sagely remarked, “One never knows, do one?” The Road not only turned out to be pretty damn good — the old coyote can really write, when he’s not overwriting — but McCarthy did something I never thought he could do: He moved me.
Naturally, the emotion doesn’t come easily. The action takes place in a presumably postnuclear America where the skies are gray, the landscape is ashy wasteland, and the few surviving souls are desperate scarecrows or vicious extras from The Road Warrior. Among the survivors are the book’s “good guys” (as they call themselves), an unnamed father and young son who, after the suicide of the wife-mother, hit the road with a pushcart. The father saves one last bullet so that, if necessary, he can kill his son rather than let him be taken as a sex slave — or worse. Even by McCarthy’s grim standards, The Road offers a memorably harsh world (babies on spits!), a reality so desolate that it largely strips the writer of a signature gift, his unmatched ability to see, and evoke, nature.
It is McCarthy’s pride — and legend — that he is utterly unsparing. He cuts to a life’s heart with a flinty honesty denied softer, more citified men. Now, there’s no denying that his vision of existence is dire. There are more jokes in the first sentence of Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (“The sun shone down, having no alternative, on the nothing new”) than in the whole of McCarthy’s career. That said, there is something sentimental in The Road’s conception of the son, who, conveniently, remains young enough that he can’t act freely or talk in depth with his father, thereby keeping him an embodiment of innocence and hope. His youth allows the dialogue with his father to remain simple and spare; it lets their emotions toward each other remain pure and finally heartbreaking. Such spareness hints at one of McCarthy’s limitations. The worst thing in the book is the talky scene with the wife, who, like many of his woman characters, only shows up to say something unlikely (“I am done with my own whorish heart”) and then proves herself irrelevant to the world of men.
The Road is a good novel, but its radically pared-down version of existence has nothing on, say, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead — another recent novel about fathers and sons, the dominion of death and the faith that keeps one going. Indeed, her book helps you see just how deeply McCarthy’s violent elementalism is shot through with antisocial, darkness-loving, dumb-ass male romanticism. Where he must torch the whole world to get to feeling and faith, Robinson simply sets her story in Iowa.
At least McCarthy creates a world. John le Carré can no longer be bothered. Slogging through his clunky new thriller, The Mission Song, I kept wondering, How long will I bother to keep reading his books? No doubt, until he stops publishing them. Such is the nature of literary loyalty. Although he hasn’t written a really good novel in more than 20 years, my fondness for the Smiley books keeps me foolishly hopeful. As the Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said of a floundering relief pitcher, “I’ve given him more chances than I gave my first wife.”
It’s become a painfully true cliché that the fall of the Berlin Wall hit le Carré harder than it did the Communist Party. Although he did manage one good book not officially about the Cold War, The Little Drummer Girl, his career thrived during the long twilight struggle that turned all heroes and villains gray. When it vanished, his novels began slipping into cartoonish 007 Technicolor (for instance, The Night Manager) or the crude black-and-white preaching of his hectoring last book, Absolute Friends.
The Mission Song’s hero is Bruno Salvador, the son of a white missionary and Congolese village girl, who works as a professional interpreter in London. Employed by British intelligence to translate at a meeting between Western financiers and Congolese warlords — the book is clotted with their endless speechifying — Salvo (as he’s known) naively thinks he’s helping broker something that will help his home country.
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