A Nativity Scene from Hell, Courtesy of Cormac McCarthy

“It howled execration upon the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor.” 

The wailed execration, of course, comes from the lungs of a newborn baby, snatched from its sleeping mother by its own father, Culla Holme—who’s also, ahem, the infant’s uncle—and left to die in a cottonwood glade as a furious storm rages. Before Culla flees, a “crack of lightening” reveals to the murderous young dad a haunting vision of “the shapeless white plasm struggling upon the rich and incunabular moss,” a “boneless cognate of his heart’s dread.”

Such ends cheerful chapter one of Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, set, like his other early works, in the “mean country” of Appalachia. It’s so much fun to read 0330314920.02.LZZZZZZZMcCarthy, but only if you enjoy gothic lit—archetypes, Biblical motifs/allusions, incest, murder, characters cast into the “outer dark” and on the move (seeking, hiding, fleeing—central McCarthy conceits). The novel also offers these delights: a mysterious, unnamed evil man and his two creepy cohorts; hanged men in trees, swaying in the hot wind; a drooling mute; a lonely and crooked tinker; a horse attack; a pig stampede; and, as usual, a “grotesque hero bobbing harried and unwilling” among all this chaos, in this story the sister, Rinthy Holme, who searches ceaselessly and tragically for her lost child, “paps” painfully swollen and leaking milk.

Oh, and Outer Dark also offers a deadly resolution not quite worthy of Blood Meridian’s horrifying finale, but brutal and essential none-the-less. You see, Holme did a very bad thing—well, at least two very bad things—and he must pay for his transgressions. Guilt casts a relentless dark shadow over him; everywhere he travels, he’s accused of some random crime and must run for his life. Thusly tormented by the curse of his sins, he tries to both escape from and confront his horrible deeds, deeds embodied by the mysterious, wandering bearded bad man, whose fires in the darkness draw in Holme like an unsuspecting moth.

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This book made me vomit

James Franco is on a Southern gothic roll these days–he’s set to release film versions of both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.  I’ve already read (and taught and worshipped) Faulkner’s masterpiece, but I’d never read this early McCarthy text, so thought I’d give it a go before the film hits the theatres.  Here’s a quick review.

What the hay-ell?  Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is not a child of God but rather the spawn of a perverse orgy: Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily,” As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Wild Palms meets Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and, um, ok, even Graham Green’s The Third Man.

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The book is about a depraved whack job named Lester Ballard, social outcast, itinerant, and, eventually, cave-dwelling, serial-killing necropheliac.  This is dark, dark material—I recommend the book only to the strong of stomach.

Why does McCarthy write about such horrible stuff and why do I love it so much?

First, of course, his prose is so damned gorgeous, so lyrical, so much fun to read—“As they went down the valley in the new fell dark basking nighthawks rose from the dust in the road before them with wild wings and eyes red as jewels in the headlights.”

Moreover, McCarthy’s topics are painfully, powerfully earth bound—saturated in blood, “nameless crud,” sex, violence, death—yet also archetypal, far-reaching, ambitious, shimmering, and universal.  Behold Ballard, mean as a badger, and we hate him, yet we also feel sorry for this child of God.  His mother deserts him and his father hangs himself; little Lester himself finds his dad’s corpse, eyes bulging out of their sockets and tongue as “black as a chow dog’s.”  Dirt poor, ignorant, dumber than a rock, reared in isolation without love, Ballard’s a wretched soul, both schizoid and probably schizophrenic.  What does the world do with such a “misplaced and loveless simian shape,” God made yet God forsaken?

The novel follows Ballard’s pathetic attempts to navigate a world dead-set against him.  We’re horrified by what he does but at the same time we root for his redemption, which comes, McCarthy style, obliquely.  McCarthy writes of his poor protagonist, “Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them,” but, of course, McCarthy could have been describing his own fiction, black as pitch and best that way.

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Another quickie

Quickie book review, that is….

I just finished Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World, the summer reading text for teachers at my school.  (Yes, I was a slacker–worse than my own students!–finished late!)

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“Success is its own reward, but failure is a great teacher too, and not to be feared.”

“Whenever I make a new friend, my mind goes naturally to the question, ‘What can I learn from this person?’”

“The dynamism of any diverse community depends not only on the diversity itself, but on promoting a sense of belonging among…those…who fe[el] themselves outsiders.”

[This last passage is food for thought for those in education, like me, who work in predominantly white schools that are earnestly (yet not always successfully) trying to diversify....]

Sotomayer is a force of nature and her autobiography provides a fascinating glimpse into her prodigious mind, a hyper-focused, hyper-ambitious, brilliant, happy, humble, kind human mind. How did this Spanish-speaking immigrant, this child of the projects, this scrawny, diabetic female not only succeed but also shoot to the stars in a white man’s world? The answer is complicated–she herself doesn’t quite know–but it seems some sort of potent mix of self discipline, determination, desire to help others, and “force of will” formed through the love of a grandmother, the challenges of poverty, the pain of living with an alcoholic father, and the support from communities at just about every stage of her life.

Here’s a manifesto for affirmative action, for serving others, and for dreaming big. Just knowing this woman sits on the US Supreme Court makes me believe in humanity.

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To Read….

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Heard a discussion of this book on NPR this morning–sounds inspiring and engrossing, especially for people in education.

Great teachers are still out there–we just need to let them BE great teachers….

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Summer Reading: A Passage to Here and Now

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The “so-called white races are really pinko-grey….  ‘[W]hite’ has no more to do with colour than ‘God save the King’ with a god.”

Ouch.  And, well, yes.

Just as resonant today as it was when published in 1924, EM Forster’s A Passage to India becomes a twentieth-century prequel to race issues that, like an insatiable liver-feeding eagle, torment us still.  After all these years, after all the blood, sweat, and tears, after all the legal and social progress, hasn’t justice overcome racism?  Unfortunately, as George Zimmerman’s acquittal this summer suggests, as NY’s racial profiling program exposes, as the hate-filled dogma that clogs the airwaves and social media brings to light, and as Passage’s final words reveal, “No, not yet….  No, not there.”

Although Adela Quested’s assault accusations and Dr. Aziz’s subsequent trial center the novel, the story is really an examination of a friendship, of a connection across cultures, or at least the possibility of connection, the attempt at connection when the power dynamic is imbalanced.  In colonial India, Dr. Aziz and his mates wonder whether “it is possible to be friends with an Englishman,” and the novel plays out this question through Aziz, the Muslim Indian, and Fielding, the atheist Brit.  Is their fragile friendship a “foolish experiment” or one that might show us how to unite cultures, “bear the voyager to an anchorage”?

To Forster’s credit, he doesn’t provide facile answers.  Rather, by revealing two flawed yet sincere men in search of that elusive “Peace that passeth Understanding,” he asks us to look deeply at ourselves, reexamine entrenched assumptions, and make the difficult effort to understand rather than vilify, the much easier choice.  We root for these two men and their quest, though everything—“the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion”—seems stacked against them, for the English, of course, control India, and the system is racist.  Yet each man desires to understand the other, and that, at least, provides hope.

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Summer Reading: The first rule of Fight Club is you read it quickly, in the summer

“[W]hat I was writing was just The Great Gatsby, updated … to compete with the espresso machine and ESPN.”
(Chuck Palahniuk in novel’s epilogue)

[spoilers--immediately]

The Great Gatsby on caffeine and testosterone, hyper and sweaty.  Not really, but a bro book if there ever was one.

OK, the novel’s psychological aspects are intriguing enough.  Tyler Durden, of course, is not a real person but the unnamed narrator’s shadow self, a projection of his repressed masculine urges, now untenable in a feminized, consumer-driven, passion-numbed society.  The problem is:  Anyone can see that gimmick coming a mile away.

But here’s the bigger disappointment: I just didn’t care much about the main character.  Of the “generation of men raised by women” (gasp!!), the guy is bored by his corporate job, can’t stand his Ikea-decorated apartment, and suffers from work-related jet lag; he feels empty, insignificant, powerless.  Boo-hoo-hoo!—white, middle-class, post-industrial male privilege is a real drag!  Dude, grow up and get over yourself.  His life is so horrible that he must punch and be punched during the night, the subconscious’ realm, in order to feel fully alive and fully masculine.  While the narrator initially attempts to stave off figurative castration, as the chaos spirals out of control his castration-anxiety becomes literal, and he must ultimately confront his own creation, Tyler, to save himself.

Fight Club is clearly satirical on many levels, and it’s often funny, but is it also mocking modern male angst?  If so, all the better, but this irony level is fuzzy, and my students might miss it….  I bet many of them will buy into the novel’s juvenile anarchy fantasy, identify with the protagonist, reinvent themselves as emasculated victims, and, feeling disaffected, start their own fight clubs.  Actually, that would be awesome—I’d like to see them beating the crap out of each other.

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Summer reading–Last Exit to Brooklyn

A few weeks before his death in 2004, Hubert Selby Jr, the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, apparently wrote, “A list of indignities:  Birth, Death.”  Lovely.  A high school dropout, a long-suffering TB patient, a heroin addict, a depressive, Selby spent his writer’s life exploring human indignities.  In Last Exit and Requiem for a Dream, the two novels of his I’ve read, he powerfully captures the tragic beauty and intense, throbbing pulse of the human experience.  If cut, Selby’s words would bleed.

last exit to brooklynLast Exit infuriated, upset, and horrified me even as it engrossed me utterly.  A series of loosely related stories, all set in the downtrodden neighborhoods of 1950s Brooklyn, the book observes society’s outcasts—prostitutes, criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, transsexuals, closeted homosexuals, the poor, the abused.  With few exceptions, these are horrible, horrible people—selfish and cruel and violent.  Take Harry, for example, the main character in Part V, titled “Strike.”  The chapter opens as he stares at, ponders, and then touches his eight-month-old son’s penis, and continues with a vicious internal tirade in which he fantasizes raping his wife wearing a “rubber dipped in iron filing or ground glass” so he can “rip her guts out.”

Perhaps this would be a nice summer reading novel for freshmen.  (Joking!)

To be honest, these sorts of character details, at page 118, come as no surprise.  Already Selby has charmed his readers with vivid descriptions of, let’s see, a brutal ass-kicking by a bunch of drunk and bored hoodlums (“and someone stomped his face into the pool of vomit and the blood whirled slightly in arcs and a few bubbles gurgled in the puke”); a twenty-four hour booze- and Benzadrine-fueled orgy with these same thugs and a bunch of transsexual prostitutes; and the downward spiral of a teenage hooker named Tralala, whose appalling gang-rape at the end of the chapter (“and more came 40 maybe 50 and they screwed her and went back on line and had a beer and yelled and laughed”) arouses deep sympathy for this girl who herself has done so many terrible things to so many people.

Just as Selby’s plot elements explode off the page, so does his style. He writes with little concern for proper grammar and punctuation.  He uses slashes for apostrophes, couldn’t be bothered with quotation marks, embeds dialogue ambiguously within paragraphs, splatters his prose with unbelievable profanity, and, Joyce-like, includes labyrinthine multi-page sentences.  Of course, Selby’s untamed narrative voice is a fitting medium for these tragic tales, not gimmicky or affected, but a Brooklyn outcast itself, seething and immediate.

I think people either love or hate this book—and you can guess which camp I’m in.  Yes, it’s depressing, but it’s also starkly beautiful and unforgettable.  Its characters are fascinating—damaged yet limping through life.  Georgette, a poetry-loving transgender prostitute, one of the book’s rare half-way decent characters, says at one point, “She creates such beauty out of the tortured darkness of our souls.”  So does Selby, and that’s why this book rocks.

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