Saturday, August 27, 2011


Barry Eastbrook's TOMATOLAND is the story of the modern industrial tomato.  To corporate industry, the goal is not taste but yield, tomatoes per acre, + appearance, the two things which equal quick sales.  That, plus the downgrading of labor.  This valuable book shows how the corporate efficiency experts changed their tomatoes into high-yield varieties sprayed with poisons that look pretty but taste bland and indeed seem to be full of chemical changes that are unhealthy.

In these last days of August, in our own garden, the vines on our cucumbers dry up.  The bib lettuce is gone, the peppers are gone, even the squash vines are dried up.  We still have pumpkins on the vine, and best of all, we still have plenty of tomatoes.  We'll keep them going as long as we can.

Just Listen to John Denver's "Homegrown Tomatoes" at this link  A very catchy tune, and the words will grow on you:

There's nothin' in the world that I like better
Than bacon 'n lettuce 'n homegrown tomatoes.
Up in the mornin', out in the garden
Get you a ripe one, don't pick a hard 'un,
Plant'em in the spring, eat'em all summer--
All winter without 'em is a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin' and the diggin'
Every time I go out and pick me a big 'un

You can go out to eat and that's for sure
But there's nothin' a homegrown tomato won't cure.
Put 'em in a salad, put 'em in a stew,
You can make your very own tomato juice.
You can eat 'em with eggs, eat 'em with gravy,
You can eat 'em with beans, pinto or navy
Put 'em on the side, put 'em in the middle,
Homegrown tomatoes on a hot cake griddle.

Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What would life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy--
That's true love and homegrown tomatoes.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: HOW TO SELL by Clancy Martin.

This is first a noir novel of crime.  The first-person protagonist is not giving us a lecture on philosophy; he is simply telling the story of his experiences in the jewelry business.  Based upon the author's own history, it is a compelling noir journey into the corruption of what you will recognize as business-as-usual, for these things go on every day in America--and not just in the jewelry trade.  The novel is unforgettably chilling because it rings so true.

There is a lot of philosophy in here but it is mostly understated in a subtext, though you might wonder at the protagonist's choice of reading matter--such books as Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  Part of the fun in the novel is in trying to figure the protagonist out, trying to see what he sees, trying to find some solid moral ground on which he can stand.  Rooting for him to free himself from the dark side.

James Ryerson, editor of of the New York Times Magazine, included How To Sell in his discussion of philosophical novels at this link.  This was one of my top five books of last year, though its sales weren't much and it seems already sadly forgotten and tremendously undervalued.

Last year there were a scattered few positive reviews, such as NPR's, but most seemed bland and negative, snubbing this darkly hilarious and relevant noir novel on laissez-faire capitalism--what the Republican party is currently praising as such a good thing.

The author worked in the Texas jewelry business for years before becoming an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri.

In a few interviews across the web, Clancy Martin has been vocal about the authorial intent of his novel.  His aiming at human universals is sometimes conscious.  He says he got the use of the color yellow to denote despair from reading Dostoevsky.  He used Carver as a minimalist model, as well as Camus and a host of other good ones.  He used Plato, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard for bits of philosophy.

Clancy Martin is the CM in this interview.  The man can talk books, and you ought not miss his splendid first novel of intellectual noir.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


 I finally got around to watching Limitless. I'd read the novel on which it is based some time ago, Alyn Glynn's first novel, The Dark Fields. The novel is a fine noir thriller about smart drugs, the movie takes the noir out by giving the protagonist a love interest and adding a Hollywood twist/happy ending. The movie removes some of the minor logical flaws of the novel but adds more of its own.

Still, I recommend it. The movie is well cast and well acted, with Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro.  And Johnny Whitworth plays an excellent Faustian devil as the drug dealer. There is a nice soundtrack and some wonderfully artsy photography. It asks the question, if a mildly autistic man gains access to more of his brain through a designer drug, and then leads a successful and organized life, is the self he had before still the same self?

It asks other things as well. But you cannot read the book or watch the movie without asking some questions yourself. This pill transforms him from mild ADD to being an instant genius, for a day. He can learn languages in hours, master any subject he undertakes to study, figure out long-range probability problems and expected stock values in a flash, yet he makes stupid mistakes that jar the logic of both novel and movie.

The enhanced protagonist seeks out a psychopathic Russian mafia loan shark to get a short term loan. He is genius enough beat the stocks, to compute trends and prices, but not smart enough to see where this will lead? Next is a pointless scene added to the movie where the protagonist takes a long dive from a cliff into the ocean, not knowing even how deep the ocean is at that point. There is something that might be gained with his risky plunge into the drug, but there is nothing that could be gained by the plunge into the ocean.  That scene is dumb on any level.

In the novel, the enhanced protagonist somehow doesn't think to have a chemical analysis of the drug made until he is running out of it.  The movie corrects this flaw a bit, and it smartly changes the method by which the loan shark discovers the drug.

In the novel, his tampering with the smart drug dosage has the protagonist having a black out during which he may or may not have killed a woman named Donatella (God-given). This works in the novel only as a symbol; he remains in the dark about whether he has killed his "God given" nature or not; the protagonist is never indicted but continues to be haunted by the uncertainty of his guilt.

The movie kept Faust but changed Donatella (married to a famous painter) into a nondescript woman for whose murder the protagonist is suspected and questioned by the police. He stands in a rigged line-up and goes free. The issue is never resolved in the movie at all and these scenes thus have no point. If they were going to drop Donatella as a symbol, they should have left the woman out of the movie altogether.

In the novel, there is a court case where a young mild mannered person kills someone, and the defense is that a drug made them do it.  The question then posed to the jury, if it all comes down to chemicals firing in the brain which can be so easily manipulated, where does free agency begin?  The movie abandoned this along with the war issues, which were also interesting and relevant.

The protagonist in the novel has not learned to love; if he had, he would have different priorities. The movie gives him a love interest but he doesn't seem to love her convincingly. He is suppose to be able to use his entire brain, but there are no spiritual, love, or compassionate elements; it is all material.  Given his power, he could devote himself to her but he does not; he could cure cancer or other diseases; he could unlock the secrets of the unconscious; hell, he could do anything he chooses.

But what does he choose to pursue? He goes after money and political power. He covets control.

Well, that works in the noir Faustian novel, not as well in the movie which turns into anti-Faust, which believes the power of the human conscious mind is indeed limitless.  That the enhanced synapses may yet figure out a new ending of the traditional Faust story.  I feel now that I'm being a bit too negative here, especially about the movie.  This too is fiction after all, and damn good thoughtful fiction.

I reviewed Alyn Glynn's terrific second novel, Winterland, some time ago.  You should read about the process of getting his first novel to film.  The novel is a timepiece of the late 1990s.  The movie makes it more relevant to current events.  You can read Alyn Glynn's column at this link.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE GENUINE ARTICLE by A. B. Guthrie, jr.

Long before he wrote The Genuine Article, A. B. Guthrie, jr. had already won the Pulitzer Prize.  His novel, The Big Sky, is a romping epic, sort of an early western narrative written with Mark Twain exuberance, unpredictable but in step with the author's vision of love and loss, of Man eventually killing that which he loves--to paraphrase what the author said of it himself.

Guthrie, then in his 49th year, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for his next novel, The Way West, which revealed less of his muse but more of the conscious craftsmanship of an authentic stylist.

His reputation made, Hollywood came calling, and he wrote, among other things, the movie adaptation of the landmark western, Shane. Howard Hawks, who had made the movie of The Big Sky, recommended him for the job. Success was built upon success, more novels and scripts followed, and Guthrie made friends wherever he went.

In 1965, when Guthrie was 64 years old, he published a lively book of memoirs, The Blue Hen's Chick: A Life In Context, and more or less said good-bye to his readers.  The last chapter was devoted to expressing his love for the natural and for his Montana home.  Reading this now, you wouldn't think that the author would go on to live another quarter of a century, that he would reinvent himself yet again, acquire a young wife and family, and then eventually write a series of cross-genre western/mysteries--but that's what he did.

You don't have to know anything about the author or his work to enjoy his mysteries, but it enhances your reading pleasure if you do.  Back in 1977, when this was first published, there were typical disclaimers in the front of most novels designed by lawyers to protect publishers from litigation.  The one here simply says, "If anyone wants to find a resemblance between himself and any of my characters, let him."

The protagonist,  deputy Jason Beard, a seeker, observes and tells us the tale in the first person.   Guthrie modeled the protagonist on his younger self, and the deputy's parents on his own parents.  The sheriff, Chick Charleston, is in part the author's brother, Chick Guthrie, perhaps with a dash of Jake Vinocur thrown in.  The mystery is a small town pastoral mystery with western musings and references, but it is also shot through with the ideas to be found in all of Guthrie's literary classics.  For instance:

Guthrie distrusted religions and true believers in the Eric Hoffer sense.  He thought that organized religions were mostly salesmanship and that they should be taxed like any other commercial enterprise.  Yet he respected the truly spiritual, such as the courageous and penniless preacher whose historical diary became the basis of Guthrie's novel, The Way West.   

Guthrie's attitudes concerning Jews, blacks, and Native Americans changed as he grew progressively more aware, and his books reflected that.  

In The Genuine Article, Deputy Jason Beard says one night that his father, "a native Hoosier," read Booth Tarkington, while he himself read Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  Meanwhile, the sheriff reads historical accounts of the west, all of them named and genuine, looking for a clue which will solve the mystery at hand.  Clues are given, yet I did not see the solution until it was revealed in the final pages of the novel.

The western pastoral mystery, hard to find back in the 1970s, is well represented today: The Edge of the Crazies by Jamie Harrison, Death and the Good Life by Guthrie's good friend, Richard Hugo, the many novels of C. J. Box and Craig Johnson.  Many others spring to mind now, too many to list here.  The mystery/western novels of A. B. Guthrie hold their own with them too.

Listen to Guthrie, writing of Montana in the early 1960s:

"For a long time the state's two corporate giants, Anaconda and the Montana Power Company, virtually ruled the state.  For reinforcements they linked to the cow counties east of the Continental Divide, where a belief in individuality and a man's rights extended to and made personal the impersonality of corporations.'

"But there grew up the Farmers' Union, a formidable organization devoted to price supports, public power, cooperative endeavor and, in league with labor, to assaults on the companies and the capture of the Democratic party.  For both sides economics comes ahead of party allegiance.'

"Two more nearly direct opposites could hardly be found, but there's the choice.  The man of independent mind steers a lonely course between an American Legion mentality and that of the maddened man with the hoe and the handout.  If he sides on occasion with the companies, he wears a copper collar; if on occasion he sides with the opposition, they want the F.B.I. to inquire into his loyalty.'

"...and a sort of anti-intellectual vigilantism, an inhospitality to deviation, both in and beyond politics and economics, does exist.  Difference all too often suspect and unwelcome.'

"Having gone so far, I back up.  In a state like Montana, where population is small and space great, human affairs are immediate and personal.  Men are known for their sense of responsibility or their lack of it, and appraisals are easy as compared with the larger and harder assessments of faceless masses and the problems that masses present.  The flashlight of Montana has a flashlight's narrow beam, picking out forms from the formless dark.  Judgments vary with environment.  And perhaps intellectual curiosity is proportionally as great here as elsewhere, but made to seem small because men are few."

And what is the real problem?

"Lives without context,' Jake Vinocur once said.  He was a professor from Montana and a Jew from somewhere, possibly a ghetto where, for all I knew, lives could claim context.'

"We sat on the grass at my mountain home, under close stars, and around and away were the lights and shadows of a Montana night.  It was an hour of no wind.  Even the nearby aspens stood unworried, asleep without feet.  On some far hill a coyote sang deepening silence.  And it seemed to me that Jake had put into three words all we had spoken.'

"This time was good, I thought, this time of silence and seeing, this rare time of felt union with the universe, these minutes escaped from a clock.  Ahead and behind, first and last, to come and have come and gone--what were they?  The past and the future and now, where wasn't now now, because it slid back in the thought of it, under eternal stars that might be under death sentences, too.  Time was timeless and, by logic, then nothing, the great nothing that was the everything that was nothing.'

"Minutes, days, months, years, centuries--they were no more than names, human inventions to mark the turn of a leaf and the swing of far suns.  In timelessness existed the dead and the quick and the unborn, all in context that Jake may or may not have meant to suggest."

That's from The Blue Hen's Chick.

And Guthrie concluded that chapter telling about the time his cabin was burglarized and his prize collection of historical firearms stolen.  He rode with the sheriff to the nearby Indian town in search of his property, since everyone always blamed either kids or "the breeds" for such transgressions without other evidence.  Guthrie alluded to this episode in The Genuine Article later but he wrote it then with even more awareness and empathy.

And nicely done.  A. B. Guthrie, jr., was the genuine article.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Two Light Reads for August

It's friday in the second week of August.  The dog days of summer, hot and sticky.  Tomorrow's the full moon, both the green corn moon and the sturgeon moon, its father the sky, its mother a fish.

The television news doesn't help matters.  Fires burning in London, political fear all over the airways here in the states, and all that hysteria can be contagious.  I can always escape into a good book, sticking to the lite, if not the light tonight.

One of my lite reads this month was J. C. S. Smith's Nightcap, a conventional detective novel with a wise and humane protagonist, a New York Jew and a fan of harness racing, and in that regard unusual.  It too starts out in the dog days:

"The middle of August is a slow, steamy time of year in New York.  Muggers, con artists, and second-story men work overtime to fill some kind of seasonal quota, but everyone else takes it easy, just trying to make it through the grit and thermal inversions until September arrives and the city starts to come alive again."

"People who can afford to leave town.  Ordinary types haul a deck chair up on the roof and work on turning their sunburn into tan.  Singles give up on finding a summer romance and start thinking about whether they should look for a new apartment instead.  Kids hang around the playground too hot to play ball, too bored to think of anything else to do.  Even the tourists begin to look a little brown around the edges."

If you're new to the series, you might want to read Jacoby's First Case before you read Nightcap.  The protagonist is full of world weary witty asides and he makes pleasant company.  The narrator's attitude, the old fashioned social criticism and manners--these all tend to make this novel an older person's read.

The other lite crime novel I'd like to recommend this week, Don Winslow's The Gentlemen's Hour, is certainly a younger person's book, the second in the series featuring the Dawn Patrol, a circle of surfing buddies headed by private investigator Boone Daniel.

The book opens at the beach during August:  "It's boring--the torpid dog days of late summer, when Pacific Beach is overrun with tourists, when most of the locies have basically sung "See you in September," and the ocean itself can't work up the energy to produce a wave. . .It's been a hot, techy summer in San Diego--tempers have flared and lives have been extinguished."  

At first I thought of Thomas Magnum, but the Dawn Patrol reminds me more of the the original Justice League of America comic, with each member having his own specialty power.  In the original JLA, J'ohn J'onzz was the Manhunter.  In here, Dave the Love God is a lifeguard and a woman hunter.  In the JLA, Aquaman was the merman with special powers in the water.  In here, Hang Twelve doesn't exactly have webbed feet or fins, but he is enhanced with six toes on each foot--hence his nickname.  Johnny Banzai and High Tide each have their special qualities, and Sunny Day is the sole female in the group, the Wonder Woman usually away on special assignment.

The original JLA had Snapper Carr, a slang talking youth who was based upon Ed "Kookie" Byrnes of television's 77 Sunset Strip.  Part of his jive talk was always made up, often humorously, and it seems to me that the narration here does the same thing, mixing youthful slang and surf slang with the author's invention.  It's a bit off-putting at first, but you get used to it.

Despite the lite format, there are some serious issues raised in the novel.  Boone and his friends like the tourist dollars but hate it when their paradise becomes too crowded, when land developers try to rope off their access to the water.  Drugs and violence are everywhere.  The main investigation that Boone takes on produces enough moral ambiguity for serious thought, but this is not a serious book--this is entertainment.

Still, Winslow does a lot of things very well.  The first chapter on the first page reads:


See "flatter than."

Like the ocean this August morning in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California.

Aka Kansas.

As the Dawn Patrol gives way to the Gentleman's Hour.

I read that as Boone's thoughts as he lays on his surf board, waiting for a wave big enough to surf on.  I can hear the waves pass between the lines.  Something different, and nicely done.

The Dawn Patrol is the name given to the early surfing hour, when workers meet to catch a wave or two before they report to their jobs.  The Gentleman's Hour is the time after that, when the independently wealthy and those others with time to spare hit the beach to surf at their leisure.

This is a much better book than the first novel, Dawn Patrol, itself.  Boone is more mature--not a lot, but there is some growth.  This second novel in the series was first published as a paperback in Great Britain and it has just recently come out in hardcover here.  I like the picture on the dustjacket with the two surfers waiting for a wave in the distance, but the blood-red font is simply too dark and hard to read on a bookshelf.  The blurbs on the rear of the dustjacket are not for this book; they are all for what may be his more serious thriller, Savages

It's almost as if the publisher is asking for The Gentlemen's Hour to be quickly forgotten.  Too bad.  There just aren't a lot of surfing detectives around.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Last March, there was an NCIS episode on television entitled "One Last Score."  William Faulkner's antique desk played a role in the story.  Ziva takes a moment to say how much she loves Faulkner's novels.  She says it was worth learning English just to read them.  Tony, the movie buff, replies that he doesn't like the novels but cherishes the many movie scripts that Faulkner wrote himself or in collaboration with others.

Faulkner is supposed to have written the suggestive horseracing metaphor which Bogart and Bacall banter back and forth across the table in The Big Sleep.  Among many other scripts, he wrote much of the film adaptation of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.  But I always think of him when I see The Long, Hot Summer, which was taken from several of his short stories.

The movie has Paul Newman and his wife-to-be, Joanne Woodward, a lovely Lee Remick, a charismatic Orson Welles, and Angela Lansbury, among other good actors.  The pacing is slow and beautiful, like the Alex North soundtrack, until the tag-end end of the summer when things get rushed.  Tensions reach their peak in the sweltering dog days when there is a barn burning and Newman's character faces a lynch mob.  But then the ending is rushed and contrived, as loose ends are quickly knitted in time for a happy ending all the way around.

Yet there are enough beautiful, iconic scenes to make the movie worth watching again this month.  The haunting soundtrack CD, by the way, also includes the theme song sung by Jimmie Rogers.  An evocation of the impermanence of summer beauty, taken to a mythic metaphor:  The long, hot summer/seems to know what a flirt you are/seems to know your caress/isn't mine to possess/How can someone possess a star?

This CD also includes Alex North's soundtrack for the adaptation of Faulkner's Sanctuary, the one that starred Lee Remick.  I have the original, but I'm going to have to get a copy of that remake when I can find one.

Oprah meant well, but she should have had her book club discuss the movie, The Long, Hot Summer, rather than Faulkner's novel, Light In August, which was badly presented and greatly misunderstood in her venue.

Faulkner said of the title, " August in Mississippi there's a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there's a foretaste of fall, it's cool, there's a lambence, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times.  It might have been fauna and satyrs and the gods and--from Greece..."

"It just lasts for a day or two, then it's gone.  But every year in August that occurs in my country, and that's all the title reminded me of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization."

That title fits the work at hand better than the original title--The Dark House.  The novel itself involves Faulkner's autobiographical details of his grief over the death of his child melded with the eternal mythic and aligned with the ideas in Henri Bergson's Pulitzer Prize winning works on the fluidity of Time.  The pertinent Faulkner quote you often hear is that the past doesn't exist, that it's not even past.

The best critical work on this novel yet published is John P. Anderson's The Poltergeist in William Faulkner's Light In August.  Anderson quotes Faulkner at length on Time, something that also explains the long, complex sentences that are his narrative trademark:  "...a man, a character in a story, at any moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him, and a long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something."

"In a sense, the past is in the present, and the present is in the future, and in this way it is impossible to draw a clear distinction between them."

Anderson says, "In this novel, the part of time past, present and future as one continuum is played by Lena's fetus."  Light In August is also a part of the country saying about the time of childbirth, "heavy in July, light in August."

"The main theme in Light In August is an elaboration of the theme pursued in Faulkner's earlier novel, The Sound And The Fury--the enemies of human individuality and realization. . .The novel's territory is the rift valley between free will and predetermined behavior.  The adventure in the territory is the pursuit of individualism.  The impersonal and inhuman forces in the territory are hostile to individual freedom."

These excerpts from Anderson's work hardly do him justice.  You should read his entire brilliant study, which is almost line-by-line.



Saturday, August 6, 2011


There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Of course that's Raymond Chandler's opening to his story entitled "Red Wind."  He might as well have been talking about the dog days of summer.

This last week, brawls on the professional baseball fields seemed to be everywhere.  Multi-millionaire pitchers threw at the heads of other multi-millionaires in line with the approval and even instruction of multi-millionaire managers but for no good reason that the rest of us could discern.

In the newspapers this week, evidence can be seen of repressed or excessive testosterone finding expression through violence or lust as the temperature rises.  Slights that should be shrugged off routinely lose their proper perspective and become crisis situations.  Other drivers on the road suddenly seem to be stalkers and psychopaths.  Mad hatters from the Tea Party.

Maybe it's the crazy weather.  Maybe they're not bad people really but, like Jessica Rabbit, they're just drawn that way.  Our safe world goes off kilter, our tempers teeter on edge, our complacency comes ajar.  We try to shut it out, but the surrounding doom and gloom talk filters into us as if by osmosis.  We wake up in the middle of the night and we can't get back to sleep.  The dogs howl outside at nothing we can see, and they will not be comforted.

Anything can happen.  Noir novels come alive in this kind of world.  They create a disturbance in the perceived normality, some uncomfortable twitch to match our own.  In the usual genre detective novel, this is resolved by an intelligent and humane protagonist in a way to make the reader vicariously feel good about the world again.

It is just fiction, a fantasy, escapism good and proper.  But in these dog days, after hearing all the propaganda on the national news, it may be the right medicine for the moment.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: NIGHT DOGS by Kent Anderson

Here we are in the dog days of summer, early August, hot, dry, and dusty.  The perfect time to be reading on through the ethereal desert of Blood Meridian.  And thence to Kent Anderson's Night Dogs, a blue-collar literary novel written in the form of a crime novel, a police procedural.

I recall reading an item on microfilm long ago in a Louisville newspaper from the 1850s.  The feral dogs in the city alleys had grown so numerous and dangerous that they were to be shot on sight by the watchmen.  At the time I wondered if this could be the source of the phrase, the dog days of summer.

Of course it was not.  The phrase came from the ancients, who had a theory that the Dog Star, which brightly appears in conjunction with the sun at this time of year, lends extra heat to the days.  Sirius is the eye of Canis Major.  The greater dog pursues the underdog, Canis Minor, who is in perpetual mourning for that suicide girl, Erigone, now forever hanging in the sky as a constellation.

The hounds of heaven.

The dogs in the prologue of Night Dogs are the feral dogs of Portland, Oregon, nightly hunted and killed by the police in what becomes a bloody game for them.  In the novel, they become symbolic.  The protagonist saves one of them, a blind dog he names Truman, and he gives him a home.

The book is written with the idea that the true man is part animal, part consciousness, and that man lives in the error of being in denial, blind to his true composition.  Read this way, the novel is outstanding and goes even beyond the high praise it received by some reviewers back in 1998, when it was first published.

I sent for it after I read author John Shannon's recommendation at The Rap Sheet (at this link), and I'm glad that I did.  The cover of the first edition won an award back in 1998, but the book has been largely forgotten.  The paperback reprint carries glowing blurbs from James Crumley, Janwillem Van de Wetering, George Pelecanos. and other fine authors.  Crumley's foreword to the paperback edition begins:

"It's the mid-seventies, and America's trying to ignore its ignominious second-place finish in the Southeast Asian War Games...The American Dream has taken a severe beating, and everything seems to have gone to hell.  The rich are getting richer and more self-righteous, the poor more desperately poor, and no one seems to remember the losses or the lessons of the Vietnam War."

Just now, I went on-line and sought out reviews of this novel, a few of them by latter-day bloggers.  Some dismiss the work as cliched, obsessed with Viet Nam, stuck in the irrelevant past.  They fail to see the universal timelessness of the story, the lessons to be learned here.  They make James Crumley's comments seem all the more prophetic.
This is a tag-along to the weekly Friday's Forgotten Book series over at Patti's site at this link.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wednesday's Western: BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy

BLOOD MERIDIAN is a masterpiece.  Like all great literature, it is timeless, a magic mirror in which different readers will always see different stories.

It is a novel of great depth, a work without bottom, written in a mythic omniscience bristling with Old Testament rhetoric and deadpan metaphor.

It is first an historical western novel, the characters and events built upon the scalp-hunting expedition in Samuel Chamberlain's autobiographical narrative, My Confession.  Scholars, led by John Sepich's own great work, Notes On Blood Meridian, have shown that McCarthy used a wealth of other historical sources as well and the structure of Blood Meridian, as well as the secondary title, are in part parody of the style of early western narratives.

Scholarly book-length studies have also been published arguing a great variance of philosophical interpretations:  Christian, Buddhist, Nihilistic, Marxist, and Gnostic among them.  All of these are equally valid, for the novel has Faulkner-like recalcitrance at its core and it defies definitive claims and explanations.  Like all great literature.

The autobiographical and historical Suttree was McCarthy's first novel, though not the first published.  His first three published novels, The Garden Keeper, Outer Dark, and Child of God, represent a trilogy of lower man, flesh-and-blood man.  In metaphor, they concern the evolutionary Fall of consciousness into animal man.

Like Dante and James Joyce before him, the grand mosaic of McCarthy's work is animal man, middle/heroic man, and spiritual man.  He is not concerned with the evolution of intelligence; he is concerned with the evolution of consciousness, from id-dominated man, to ego-dominated man, to superego-dominated man.  Blood Meridian is the dividing line between the animal man trilogy and the middle/heroic man trilogy.  His later works, from Cities of the Plain on, would involve a more spiritual, a more reflective consciousness.

McCarthy's writing style evolved at the same time, from the Faulknerian of his early gothic works to the Hemingwayesque of his heroic Border trilogy to the Beckett-like spareness of his later works.  The dividing lines are not clean cut--nor were they in Joyce--but the mosaic is there, the increasing empathy, the evolution of consciousness.

As with some of Faulkner's novels, McCarthy's works can often be broken into their common denominators of time and space while linked to the author's own history.  See Dr. Jay Ellis's brilliant book, No Place For Home: Spatial Constraint and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy.  The spaces collapse until the characters run out of country.  Also see Animals in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy by Willis R. Sanborn, which shows how animals increasingly die and disappear in each McCarthy novel published.

As with all great works of literature, you can take one page and write pages about it.  Blood Meridian's opening line is, "See the child."

According to Elizabeth Francisca Andersen's book-length study, A String in the Maze: The Mythos of Cormac McCarthy, this phrase is ecce puer which becomes ecce homo. Elsewhere in the text, McCarthy repeats the 'See him' as a form of Ecce homo, behold the man, from John 19:5:

"..the phrase used by Pontius Pilate in presenting Jesus to the crowd demanding his execution. The phrase Ecce puer (Behold the child.) appears in the Old Testament (Isaiah 41:1) in a passage that has traditionally been read as a prefiguration of the miracles performed by Jesus.  Ecce Homo has been used since the Middle Ages as the title for paintings depicting suffering, poverty, illness, and death.  Among the many works that take Ecce Puer as their title is a poem by James Joyce. Ecce Homo is the title of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche, who employs the phrase ironically. Both works may have been known to McCarthy."
Like John Sepich, I believe that Blood Meridian turns on the episode where the kid shows mercy to the eldress in the rocks.  Despite being then twenty-eight years old, the narrator refers to him as the kid until then.  Thereafter, he is called "the man."

McCarthy's next novel was All the Pretty Horses.  It is a very deep novel and it represented the next stage in the author's mosaic, the first novel in a heroic trilogy.  A segment of McCarthy fans, hooked on the style of Blood Meridian, were stunned and turned off by this development.  They objected to the shift in the prose style.  They cried "sell out!" and stomped off from the Cormac McCarthy Society in a huff.

Much later again, when McCarthy published No Country For Old Men, there were similar cries and people who swore at him for being a sell-out to commercialism.  But that novel, genre on its surface, is also miles deep, and it fills its niche in McCarthy's greater mosaic of the evolution of consciousness.  Chigurh is the id-dominated man, Moss is the ego-dominated man, and Bell is the superego-dominated man.  But it is Bell's book.  A close reading of the opening page shows that Bell has empathy for both the victim and killer, even though the killer himself is a psychopath.

The mosaic of Cormac McCarthy's fiction is the evolution of consciousness and the cyclic spectrum of the human condition from animal man to middle/heroic man to spiritual man.