“The conventional Western,” writes novelist John Williams in a 1961 essay, “involves an elemental conflict between the personified forces of Good and Evil”: Cowboy v. Cattle Rustler, for instance, or Cowboy v. Indian. In the “Marshal v. Bank Robber” variation on the formula described above, the Law Man acts as the unflinching, unbending champion of morality and the rule of law, as shiny as the star on his shirtfront. But in recent and not-so-recent visions of the West, the Law figures clumsily, impotently, and sometimes corruptly, as just one more force in a great and teeming chaos. This list of must-read crime titles forms part of a lesser-known West, a deeply and awesomely weird landscape in which the line between Good and Evil shimmers like a mirage:
1. Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie
People tend to read Alexie as a humorist, but that might just be because laughing at things makes them less painful. Alexie’s noirish second novel unfolds as a mystery, but in the process it transcends the genre: when scalped white men begin to appear around Seattle, an Alex Jonesian radio personality (Truck Schulz) whips his listeners into a racist frenzy. Running alongside the resolution of the murders is the story of John Smith, a tribeless Native American whose descent into madness is written with sympathy and just the right touch of dark humor. A wonderful book.
2. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
This Costa-winning novel is told in the thick brogue of Thomas McNulty, who has to rank among the most original, funny, and lovable cowboys of all time. An Irishman fleeing the Famine, McNulty comes to America and, in short order, befriends and falls in love with fellow street urchin John Cole. After a stint as dance-card flaneurs in a mining camp, the two join the Federal Cavalry and eventually end up Out West. After that, stuff gets pretty dark—in a good way. Barry’s story reminds us that, in the right hands, the myths of the West can be remade and rediscovered.
3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Apart from invoking the New Mexican landscape in gorgeous prose, Cather’s retelling of the death and life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy ( “Latour” in this lightly fictionalized version) offers readers a vivid portrait of the West in the first days of American occupation. In 1851, Cather’s Nuevo México is a potpourri of cultures and languages: Pueblo dialects, Apache, and Navajo mingle with Spanish and French (plus, the occasional snatch of gringlish). Parts of this novel will feel uncomfortably dated; Cather’s sympathies clearly lie, for instance, with the French Jesuits as they seek to stamp out the hybridized Catholicism practiced by the mestizo priests of Taos. But her careful portrait also captures some of the impossible arrogance of the priests’ quest—and, like all great villains, hers have basically good intentions.
4. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
DeWitt’s hilarious, weird, wonderful novel follows two hired assassins, Eli and Charlie Sisters, on their latest job for “the Commodore,” a mysterious figure of infamy and riches: kill Hermann Warm, who has “stolen” something from the Commodore and now mucks about in the gold camps of California. Like the assassins themselves, however, the mission is much more than it appears at first glance.
5. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich’s novel opens on the day Joe Coutts, a 13-year-old Ojibwe boy living on an unnamed reservation in North Dakota, learns that his mother has been brutally raped. What follows is Coutts’s quest to find the identity of his mother’s attacker and bring him to justice. This novel is at once a mystery and a careful and sympathetic portrait of a family and community healing in the wake of profound trauma.
6. Warlock by Oakley Hall
Written just as the Cold War reached a fever pitch, Hall’s Warlock is an awesomely original look at the orgiastic violence of the West. Everything in this town, based loosely on the Tombstone of Earp lore, revolves around money: the price of a few rustled cattle, the salary for a gunslinging marshal, the cost of medicine to treat those wounded in the fighting. “Pay ain’t the only reason for a thing,” insists the doomed leader of a group of striking silver miners—maybe, but in Hall’s Warlock, pay is very nearly all that matters. Thomas Pynchon called it one of America’s finest novels, and he might be right.
7. The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf
The unforgettable opener to Haruf’s novel features 80-year-old Edith Goodnough in a hospital bed, a cop watching her carefully from the door: Goodnough, we learn, lies accused of arson and murder. From there, the villain’s neighbor tells Edith’s story: a childhood spent under her father’s iron fist, and an adulthood spent in more or less the same way. A beautifully told novel, one of Haruf’s best.
8. Owning It All by William Kittredge
Among other things, Kittredge’s collection of essays explores the peculiar virtues of breaking the law. “Drinking and Driving” features perhaps my favorite first line of all time: “Deep in the far hearts of my upbringing, a crew of us 16-year-old lads were driven crazy with ill-defined midsummer sadness by the damp, sour-smelling sweetness of nighttime alfalfa fields, an infinity of stars and moonglow, and no girlfriends whatsoever.” But Kittredge’s essays also explore the notion that, of all the many and varied crimes of the West, perhaps none is as grave as the crime perpetrated against the landscape by those who seek to profit from it.
9. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s novel still sets the bar for the Western Noir, an updated version of the Cowboy and Outlaw tale in which the Outlaw prevails, prevails, and prevails again. This book is worth re-reading for its portrait of hired killer Anton Chigurh, a villain who seems to have bubbled up from the very earth. Like the unjustly accused crooks of Hall’s novel, Chigurh becomes something like an avenging spirit, a walking curse sowing awesome destruction in his wake.
10. Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain
A week after 9/11, a lawman named Ray shot and killed his wife, Debbie, in the Arizona desert. Years later, Debbie’s son wrote a beautiful book about what happened, and why. With a light touch, Justin St. Germain also re-wrote the story of the West, taking careful measure of the distance between its myths and the facts on the ground. St. Germain was raised in the real-life Tombstone, now a dingy tourist trap dependent on the legend (mostly apocryphal, the author notes) of Wyatt Earp. St. Germain is Oakley Hall’s rightful heir: just as the paranoia of the McCarthy era infuses Hall’s novel, so does the country’s murderous mood in the wake of 9/11 infuse Son of a Gun. The interlinked stories—of the author’s grief, of his mother and Ray, of Earp and Doc Holliday—are told against the backdrop of America bearing up for its latest act of ritualized violence. As good on a second read as it is on the first.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Cormac McCarthy can now add “screenwriter” to his glittering resume. The Counselor, the decorated novelist’s first produced screenplay, is in theaters now. It’s directed by Ridley Scott and stars Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt. And it’s a mindfuck.
One reviewer offered this assessment of the screenplay: “McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life.” I can think of no higher compliment for a screenwriter. I say that as someone who has written a handful of (unproduced) screenplays that more or less hewed to the template found throughout the groaning shelf of books on How To Write a Screenplay. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, for instance, Michael Hauge urges writers to follow the conventional three-act format: “The goal of act one is to establish the setting, character, situation and outer motivation for the hero. The goal of act two is to build the action, suspense, pace, humor, character development, and character revelation. The goal of act three is to resolve everything from both your hero’s inner and outer journey.”
McCarthy, to his great credit, is having none of it. He doesn’t so much break the rules as he ignores them and makes his own. This daring strategy, when harnessed to a talent as prodigious as McCarthy’s, results in that rare thing called originality, and it puts him in the company of such sui generis screenwriters as Orson Welles, Robert Towne, and Charlie Kaufman. The Counselor follows no three-act road map or even the familiar conventions of character development, narrative arc, character motivation, and the rest of it. What it offers, instead, is an irresistible story that’s coheres slowly through the seamless ratcheting of tension. The key to this story’s success, I think, is that McCarthy is working with something far more slippery and rewarding than mere suspense. He’s working with dread — that is, with the audience’s dawning unease that there is genuine evil afoot here and these characters will come to ends that can only be bad.
This dread is injected early and often, in subtle ways — for instance, when the unnamed title character (Fassbender) tells his fiancée Laura (Cruz), “I intend to love you until I die.”
The counselor and Laura live in familiar McCarthy territory, the Tex-Mex border, the setting for his novel No Country for Old Men. It’s a place where sweet nothings can sound like a death sentence, where the drugs flow one way and the blood flows wherever and whenever it is made to. Without telling Laura, the counselor has gotten in on a cocaine deal run by one of his clients, the flamboyant nightclub owner Reiner (Bardem), who frolics in his desert compound with beautiful people and his jaded hottie du jour, Malkina (an astonishingly good Diaz, who gives new meaning to the word meretricious with her two pet cheetahs and her spray on-dresses, six-inch stilettos, silver fingernails, and rings the size of meteorites). Also in on the coke deal is another world-wise customer named Westray (Pitt), who offers the counselor some insights into the world he is getting himself — and his fiancée — into. None of it is pretty.
What could have been just another drug-fuelled bloodbath turns into something much more compelling in McCarthy’s hands: an examination of how a man’s choices become his fate, because they start out inevitable and then become irreversible and finally become lethal. Especially when you choose to play with a Mexican cartel.
It helps that the movie is directed by Ridley Scott, who has shown that he has a deft feel for writers who write literature and serious journalism, as opposed to screenwriters who pump out the formulaic dreck that winds up on the vast majority of movie screens. Two obvious examples are Blade Runner, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and American Gangster, based on a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson. Both movies excel because they spring from rich source material and go far beyond slavish imitation of that material.
Scott’s natural gifts may have gotten a boost in the case of The Counselor because the script reads more like fiction than a conventional screenplay. One scene illustrates the point especially well. In it, a man goes about laying an ambush for a motorcyclist who is involved, in ways that are not quite clear, in the shipment of the cocaine across the border:
A LARGE MOTORCYCLE store in the city. A man enters and stands looking. He crosses to where a Kawasaki ZX-12R motorcycle is circling slowly on a motorized dais. The dais is marked off with a blue velvet rope and the man approaches and stands looking at the bike for a moment, then unhooks the rope and lets it fall to the floor and mounts the dais and stands circling with it. A clerk talking to a customer nearby sees him. The clerk comes over to the dais. The man has taken a steel tape measure from his coat pocket and is measuring the height of the Kawasaki at the handlebars.
(There’s one telling difference between the screenplay and what winds up on the screen. In the finished movie, the clerk approaches the man with the measuring tape and asks, “Can I help you?” The man replies, “Nope.” That simple “Nope” carries a ton of freight, and it strikes me as an improvement on McCarthy’s original.) The scene continues:
BORDER CITY. EVENING. An outdoor café adjoining a parking lot. Metal chairs and tables. Traffic. A Mexican man is sitting at one of the tables with a cup of coffee before him and a newspaper. The young man in green pulls up on the Kawasaki ZX-12R. He takes off the gloves and the helmet and puts the gloves inside the helmet and steps off the bike and walks to where the man is sitting and kicks back a chair and sits down.
THE MAN AT THE table rises and goes, leaving the paper on the table. The kid sits at the table and opens the newspaper and reads.
THE KID RAKES AN object from under the paper into his helmet and puts down the paper and stands and puts the helmet under his arm and crosses the plaza to his bike and puts his foot over the bike and starts it and pulls his gloves from the helmet and lays them on the tank in front of him and pulls on the helmet and fastens the strap and then pulls on the gloves and kicks back the stand and pulls away into the traffic.
NIGHT. TWO-LANE blacktop road through the high desert. A car passes and the lights recede down the long straight and fade out. A man walks out from the scrub cedars that line the road and stands in the middle of the road and lights a cigarette. He is carrying a roll of thin braided wire over one shoulder. He continues across the road to the fence. A tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fence posts and at the top—some twenty feet off the ground—is a floodlight. The man pushes the button on a small plastic sending unit and the light comes on, flooding the road and the man’s face. He turns it off and walks down the fence line a good hundred yards to the corner of the fence and here he drops the coil of wire to the ground and takes a flashlight from his back pocket and puts it in his teeth and takes a pair of leather gloves from his belt and puts them on. Then he loops the wire around the corner post and pulls the end of the wire through the loop and wraps it about six times around the wire itself and tucks the end several times inside the loop and then takes the wire in both hands and hauls it as tight as he can get it. Then he takes the coil of wire and crosses the road, letting out the wire behind him. In the cedars on the far side, a flatbed truck is parked with the bed of the truck facing the road. There is an iron pipe at the right rear of the truck bed mounted vertically in a pair of collars so that it can slide up and down and the man threads the wire through a hole in the pipe and pulls it taut and stops it from sliding back by clamping the wire with a pair of vise grips. Then he walks back out to the road and takes a tape measure from his belt and measures the height of the wire from the road surface. He goes back to the truck and lowers the iron pipe in its collars and clamps it in place again with a threaded lever that he turns by hand against the vertical rod. He goes out to the road and measures the wire again and comes back and wraps the end of the wire through a heavy three-inch iron ring and walks to the front of the truck, where he pulls the wire taut and wraps it around itself to secure the ring at the end of the wire and then pulls the ring over a hook mounted in the side rail of the truck bed. He stands looking at it. He strums the wire with his fingers. It gives off a deep resonant note. He unhooks the ring and walks the wire to the rear of the truck until it lies slack on the ground and in the road. He lays the ring on the truck bed and goes around and takes a walkie-talkie from a work bag in the cab of the truck and stands in the open door of the truck, listening. He checks his watch by the dome light in the cab.
HE TURNS OFF the walkie-talkie and takes the cigarette from his mouth and grinds it into the dirt and shuts the door of the truck. He looks at his watch. Very thin in the distance we can hear the high-pitched scream of the Kawasaki bike flat out at eleven thousand r.p.m.
SHOT OF THE green rider bent low over the bike at a hundred and ninety miles an hour. Suddenly, the floodlight comes on and he raises up and turns his head to look at it.
THE TRUCK. THE desert is suddenly lit to the north of the wire man and he takes the ring and carries it forward and pulls it over the hook. The wire hums.
SHOT OF THE green rider with his face turned back to the floodlight, which is now behind him. Suddenly, his head zips away and, in the helmet, goes bouncing down the highway behind the bike. The bike continues on, the motor slows and dies to silence, and in the distance we see a long slither of sparks recede into the dark.
THE TRUCK. THE man clips the wire at the ring with a pair of wire cutters and the wire zips away. He walks out to the road with the walkie-talkie. In the road, he shines the light down the blacktop and then walks down the roadside ditch until he comes to the helmet.
HE PUTS AWAY the walkie-talkie and bends over and picks up the helmet. It is surprisingly heavy. He goes back to the truck and opens the cab door on the driver’s side and puts the helmet on the floor and shuts the door and goes out to the road and crosses to the fence, where he cuts the wire free from the fence post and begins to wind it up as he walks, passing the wire over his elbow at each turn to make a coil. He stows the wire in a toolbox under the bed of the truck and gets in the truck and starts it and turns on the lights and drives out into the road.
(Here Scott makes another small but telling change. In the finished film, the ambusher doesn’t put the helmet in the truck; he shakes the helmet until the head falls out, making a wet whap when it hits the pavement. Then he removes the vital object from inside the helmet, pockets it, and drives away. Much better.)
The key to the success of this scene is the way McCarthy so deliberately builds the dread, then executes the payoff (and the motorcyclist) in the wink of an eye. The whole movie is like that — the slow-cooked accretion of dread, leading to a flash of violence. And then, almost always, someone is dead.
McCarthy’s script is not flawless. Some of the dialog has a high tin content. As sleazy Westray, Brad Pitt, looking perfect for the role with a slight pot belly, puffy cheeks and stringy hair, says things like “You don’t know someone till you know what they want” and “I’ve seen it all and it’s all shit.” The counselor woos Laura with: “You are a glory. As in glorious. You are a glorious woman.” And finally, Malkina, who proves to be the most dangerous one in this cage full of animals, theorizes that predators in the wild are pure because they are what they do, while we humans have fallen from their state of pure grace: “It is our faintness of heart that has driven us to ruin.”
Listening to Cameron Diaz utter a few lines like that goes a long way, but these missteps are small. The movie is huge, largely because the man who wrote the screenplay is a giant and he has never read a screenwriting manual in his life.
There are, in Cormac McCarthy’s impossibly affecting novels, details that simultaneously open up his dismal universe and draw in the reader. In Blood Meridian, it’s the Apache wearing the wedding dress. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s the bullet hole in the wallet. In No Country for Old Men, the glass of milk, still sweating on the coffee table. In The Road, it’s the can of Coke, pulled from the guts of the vending machine. No, it’s that the soda has somehow stayed carbonated after the cataclysm. No, it’s that the father lets his son drink the whole thing. Surely this is one of the most humane and deeply inhabited moments not just in fiction from this millennium, but in all of literature.
And yet the book is rife with such moments, replete with such deep empathy for the father and son that some of the bleakest passages will turn your stomach as only love can. This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Road: what remains, what you remember years after you’ve read the book, is the beauty, the compassion, the relentlessness of possibility that burns on the colorless horizon. You understand—much in the way that you first understand poetry, through feeling and syntax and imagery rather than logic—that no matter how desolate the story, it is made bearable through language. There is, the novel asserts, something like triumph in the very telling of a tale, a commitment to the act of witness, and to receive a story is to exalt the imagination, to participate in the process of faith, to accept deliverance. Why else, then, would the father in the novel—when his son is too scared to sleep, when the noise of the world dying its cold death keeps him awake—comfort the boy with narrative? They’ve been stripped of everything except voice, but even on the darkest path words can retain their meaning, their promise of light that will lead lost travelers home.
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Kings of Infinite Space, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish. He’s a Michigander, but he’s lived in Austin, Texas, since 1995. Hynes adds, “I have a new novel that is, if I’d only get my ass in gear, a month or two away from being finished.”James Hynes’ Top Three… No, Top Four Books of 2007Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I’ve been an atheist since the age of 15, when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, but since then I’ve never really bothered to examine why I believe what I believe (or don’t believe, as the case may be). So, with atheism in the air recently, I read Ms. Hecht’s wonderful popular history of skepticism, from the Greeks to the present. It’s elegant, witty, and very light on its feet, with none of the arrogance, self-righteousness, or snarkiness of the New Atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). I learned a lot, and now, thanks to Ms. Hecht, I have purchased a small library of classics of skepticism (by Epicurus, Cicero, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, and David Hume) that I’m working through, books I should have read as a philosophy major years ago, but didn’t.Rabbit at Rest by John Updike. When I was a young, stupid, unpublished writer, I used to diss Updike for being all style and no substance – sure the sentences were lovely, but his books weren’t about anything important, the way, say, Gravity’s Rainbow was. But since my father died a few years ago and I turned fifty, suddenly it turns out Updike’s novels, the Rabbit books in particular, are about everything. I started a couple of years ago by rereading Rabbit Run, and I finished the fourth and final book just a couple of weeks ago. Updike’s pointillist rendering of an ordinary and not even especially likable ordinary guy is both unsentimental and humane, and it manages, somehow, miraculously, to make everyday life into something epic.Dance Night by Dawn Powell. I decided to try Powell because my friend Kate Christensen (author of The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man) has always spoken highly of her. I even had Katie’s permission not to like the book. But, as it turns out, I loved it. I gather that Powell’s best known books are about bohemian life in mid-century New York, but this one is a vivid and clear-eyed rendering of some intricately intertwined lives in a small, working-class town in Ohio in the early 20th century. Apart from a few touches, this book feels surprisingly contemporary. It’s expertly and surprisingly plotted, and, like the Updike book, it somehow manages to be mercilessly honest and tender all at once. It’s like a boiled-down Dreiser novel, only much, much better written than Dreiser.No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. After I finished the first hundred pages of this, I e-mailed my friend John Marks (author of The Wall and Fangland), who had raved to me about this, and asked him what all the fuss was. It’s just a Jim Thompson novel, I said, weary sheriff versus heartless psychopath out in arid West Texas, only with a higher literary gloss than Thompson’s work. John was gracious, as always – he’s a Texan himself – but I sensed that he thought I’d missed the point on this one. Which, it turns out, I had. I finished the book – just last night, as a matter of fact – and it turns out to have more in common with Dostoevsky than with Jim Thompson, if Dostoevsky wrote lightning-paced, violent thrillers that get adapted for the screen by the Coen brothers. As a thriller, it’s first rate, but what makes it a great novel are the first person sections by Sheriff Bell, whose faith in goodness is shaken to the core by the events of the novel and who speaks in pitch-perfect Texan. I’m still not sure it’s as good as Blood Meridian (my favorite McCarthy novel), but, as we say in Texas, it’ll do till the real thing gets here.More from A Year in Reading 2007
The IMPAC shortlist has arrived. If you don’t know about the IMPAC, it’s a very unique prize with a very long longlist. This year’s longlist was composed of nominees from 169 libraries in 45 countries around the world. Those picks are then whittled down to a shortlist via a panel of judges. As you’ll see from the shortlist, since the process leading up to this award takes so long, some of the books aren’t exactly new. I think involving libraries makes the IMPAC unique compared to a lot of other awards out there. It seems a lot more egalitarian than, say, the Booker or the National Book Award, and I appreciate the international flavor as well. There’s more info about the award at the IMPAC site. Now, here’s the shortlist with some comments:Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – Was shortlisted for the Booker back in 2005 – excerptA Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry – Joined Barnes on the 2005 Booker shortlist.Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee – This book was featured in our long ago post “The beauty of British book design.”Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer – Corey took a look at this book in a “CVBoMC” installment last year. – excerpt.The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs – This debut effort by British novelist Hobbes was nominated by a single library in Bergen, NorwayNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy – With The Road getting all the praise these days, some might forget that McCarthy’s previous novel hit shelves just 21 months ago, a blink of an eye for a writer who’s written ten books in 41 years – excerptOut Stealing Horses by Per Petterson – This book by the Norwegian Petterson won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year. It’ll be published in the U.S. next month.Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – Shalimar was a Whitbread finalist in 2005, but generally the book is not thought to be one of Rushdie’s best efforts. The book was nominated by a library in Berlin – excerpt
I got a lot of responses to my call for people to share the best books they read this year. Here are some of the shorter entries and lists that I received.Stephen Schenkenberg (who pens an engaging blog) said:Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road — the best book I read all year — gutted me. William H. Gass’ essay collection A Temple of Texts — the second best — has been the balm. Steve Clackson also wrote in:My favorite book this year.Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden – commentsSome others I’ve enjoyed.Painkiller by Will Staeger – commentsDe Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage – commentsBooks by Victor O’Reilly – commentsHeather Huggins named her top three:Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day is a close third.And finally, Sandra Scoppettone’s list: Utterly Monkey by Nick LairdCitizen Vince by Jess WalterThe Night Watch by Sarah WatersThe Girls by Lori LansensWater for Elephants by Sara GruenWinter’s Bone by Daniel WoodrellTriangle by Katherine WeberA Spot of Bother by Mark HaddonEat The Document by Dana SpiottaNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThanks everyone!