Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Long-Ass Story of How I Came to (Find it Hard to) Recommend Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses"

Referred to in this post: William Shatner, All the Pretty Horses, Harry Potter, Ernest Hemingway, The Road, Keanu Reeves, Shopaholic, Ken Follett, The Social Network, Matt Damon, Vietnamese noodles, Woody Allen, Cormac McCarthy and and and...



You're either into Star Wars or you're not. There's little in between. It takes movies of that scope, movies that remarkably well made to truly break the sci barrier and reach the wider audience. As is of course the case for all great movies, books, music. The way Miles' trumpet can reach well beyond the usual jazzophile's oh so well trained ears and why a half-Jewish short story writer for the New Yorker stunned everyone and himself in 1951 by publishing what turned out to be an international phenomenon. (Clue: It's written by the other writer I never stop talking about. Ie. Not Haruki Murakami.)

Still. Even a movie as good as The Matrix on re-viewing can be hard to swallow (red pill, blue pill, who gives a crap pill?), or so is the case for those of us not sworn allegiance to all things star war/trek involved. For only in the genres we love are we blind to their tropes (eg. Keanu Reeves/William Shatner's acting). But in those genres that don't grab us instant and automatic, we stand outside their bounds and see their structure, their limitations (eg. Keanu Reeves/William Shatner's acting).

All this because I don't know how to recommend Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses to you. Before telling you why, I should stop here to note that Cormac McCarthy's books have about as much in common with the Star Wars movies as Woody Allen does to Harry Potter. But there I go mixing genres again. (If I had an editor he'd have nixed my opening long ago for its terrible misdirection. This post has nothing to do with Star Wars really. Ah, but the pleasures of not working volunteering for the man person.) McCarthy is neither funny nor fantasy. Neither Jew(ish) nor Eng(lish). He's an American and All the Pretty Horses is a western, if we've gotta label it. It is also the first of what's known as "The Border Trilogy," three novels that came almost a decade before they rightly awarded McCarthy the Pulitzer for his masterpiece, The Road.

My confusion and inability to just write a straight recommendation comes in response to an incident that happened to me a few weeks back. I was reading the novel, loving it, lusting after it, getting intimate, not able to stay away, feeling the required need to share it with others, as is my way. An older woman (no need to mention names), lover of books, teacher of youngsters, and clearly a highly intelligent personage all around, she was sitting across from me at a restaurant on Bloor Street, two enormous bowls of Vietnamese noodles between us- there was in fact a whole group of us, but by chance or fate we two were sat across from one another at the one end of the long table. She was so book-lovish and so novel-smartish that I, unable to help myself, had to pull McCarthy's book from my knapsack and share it with her.

"Just read the first page," I said. I was, clearly, very excited.
Which reminds me of my brother-in-law who reads more than God. He knows more than most internet search engines and he is a true book-lover, knowledge-accumulator. He also has a gift for remembering all he reads that is far beyond the average, and well ahead of my less than average and rather crap memory, really.

What I can remember, on first getting to know said brother-in-law and trying to bond, was my bringing up one of my favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway (a big influence on McCarthy, I'm pretty sure, so this story is related - bear with me). Hemingway! my brother-in-law said, all but curling up the one side of his smirk. He then, in bold and hilarious fashion did his impression of a typical Hemingway novel. It went something like this:

I woke up. I went downstairs. I had a drink. The drink was good. Then I went outside. After I had some more to drink. Then I went and slept. In the morning I drank again and it was good.

The point was clear. The Hem(ingway) was lame, was simpleton, was ridiculous. And from outside I can totally see it. And yet I am a fan, a lover, and a sucker most of all to Hemingway's astoundingly simple(-seeming!) style.

But back to that older woman.

I gave her my copy of All the Pretty Horses, the one I went out my way to get because it didn't have Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz smooching on the cover (tie-in to the movie, no thank you, especially when said movie is said to be crap!).After reading for a couple expectant (on my part) minutes, she looked up, and was laughing. If you know The Road never mind Blood Meridian or anything else by Cormac McCarthy you know that laughter ain't a common reaction to the never less than brutally intense writer.

What? I said.

This is a joke, right? She genuinely thought I was pulling her leg she found the writing so cliche, so bad. Like a bad western, she said.

What's so interesting to me is how clear and right both her opinion and my brother-in-law's opinion were. Like an old friend who recently status updated on facebook:  

The Social Network = made-for-TV movie. 
I hated the comment at first, disappointed that such a smart friend would disagree so vehemently with my taste in a movie. Because when it comes to taste it's always personal, isn't it? Then I actually thought about it and thought, He's right. The Social Network does have something of the TV movie to it. The dialogue especially, but even the movie's arc. It was, in fact, a brilliant insight, especially as Sorkin, who wrote it, was the guy who wrote and created TV's The West Wing. Yet after taking that in, after being willing to accept it - to even appreciate it - the movie remains my favourite flick of the year. (We now have a bet going, that friend and I, both of us sure that in two years the other one will have totally changed his mind and adore/despise the flick. Time will tell.)

This week I started working part-time at a big book store. This snobby, nerdy, bloggy, writerly guy now gets to meet the women that come in looking for the latest Shopaholic. He chats with the men who want - perhaps need - the new Ken Follett.

Good to know there're different opinions in this world.

Here, to conclude, that opening to All the Pretty Horses, a book I strongly recommend and that I liked so very much I had to go online and buy the second and third books in the trilogy. When the writing is as good as this I am a sucker.

You decide:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutlgass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping. 

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