Sunday, August 23, 2015

Literature Today, Cabron

"All the Pretty Horses," by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy is best known for penning “No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers into a film and later, “The Road,” a great post-apocalyptic story also turned into a film.  He’s a modern western writer – like Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey or an occasional Barbara Kingsolver book.  McCarthy focuses on extremely marginal white people – outcasts of various kinds and the violence they run into or cause.  In this book, the first in the ‘Border Trilogy,’ some teenage boys leave Texas, cross the Rio Grande and ride their horses into Mexico.  The period might be the 1960s / 1970s.  They are for some reason sick of life on their ranches and decide to seek adventure by horseback. 

Horse Lovers, Horse Thieves
They are young cowboys and horse people.  One, John Grady, is an excellent horse trainer and chess player, fluent in Spanish, never misses a shot, a great fighter and along with his friend Rawlins, a survivor.  He is also successful with the beautiful rich Mexican girl on the hacienda.  Yeah, he’s not real.  Sort of a 17-year-old teenage “man with no name” - a typical masculine stereotype hiding behind the ‘alternative western’ trope.  Lone heroes are still a staple of western literature, and McCarthy is no different. 

Yet McCarthy is probably one of the best prose writers in the U.S. His stories are always either riveting or at least interesting.  (Prior reviews of “The Road” and “Suttree,” below.)  His prose is unique, sort of an adaptation of Joycean word play and sentence structure to a more spare and realistic narrative.  In this first of his ‘border’ series, McCarthy illuminates the desert in all its barren glory.  The desert is not like other places – it is immediately unforgiving.  Mountain, prairie, seaside and woods have life and water and mostly closer horizons.  The desert has little water and the biggest horizon.  The northern Mexican desert and mountains of this story play a role just like a character. 

Why should leftists care?  Few present mainstream writers write about the working class, which is the problem.  McCarthy, Russell Banks, John Sayles, Dennis Lehane, TC Boyle, Alice Walker, Tony Morrison and a few others sometimes or occasionally do, but rarely in a political way.  Mostly they write descriptive stories, with Banks and Sayles the most consistent. (Sample title: "Trailer Park," by Banks.) American literature is now dominated by people like Jonathan Franzen and the dead David Foster Wallace.  Franzen is a writer who concentrates on middle-class life.  He is the inheritor of Updike and Roth but without the chauvinism and sexual infantilism.  Wallace was a post-modernist who attempted to become ‘modern’ and failed. Most present books and TV shows about working class life paint us as buffoons or in unreal situations.  Or as bums or drunks or violent – i.e. anything by Charles Bukowski.

In the earlier part of the 20th century in the U.S. this was not so.  A large strain of writers mined working-class life for stories, including political ones.  As the academics say, proletarians had ‘agency.’  Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Richard Wright, Theodore Dreiser, Mike Gold, John Steinbeck, James Farrell and others covered political and social topics with ease.  The MFA was unknown.  While many cite the dreadful “Great Gatsby” as the great American novel, it is really the great American rich person’s novel.  Every high school English teacher loved the progressive “To Kill a Mockingbird” until Harper Lee’s actual first novel “Go Set A Watchman” came out recently and undermined it.  The educated white man who saved a black boy was still a segregationist. Yet these books are the standard.  In the process the writers from the 1900s-1940s and the class they illuminated became invisible.  In the same process, actual work also became invisible.  Ralph Ellison is not the only one to describe invisible people and invisible things. 

This invisibility is part of neo-liberal tenets.  We are merely consumers now – consumers of images, of technology, of clichés, of products, of politicians.   There is no majority anymore, just many individuals with various life-style choices pursuing 'passionate' interests. The dirty work is done behind the scenes and best not talked about except in euphemisms.  The majority must know they are not a majority.  They must know that their concerns are peripheral to crime or English professor’s love stories or various addictions - or to very important people. 

In this book, McCarthy describes a somewhat old-fashioned life on a ranchero in Mexico, with its brace of vaqueros and tasks – branding, breaking wild horses, gathering cattle.  Yet the poison in this idyllic world is a very young white drifter, Blevins, who crazily kills 3 men trying to get his handsome horse back – found and then hidden by a rich Mexican.  This is not about class in the end - it is about individual pride, possession, honor, the ‘west.’  Ultimately, marginal and extreme people are more interesting than common people for McCarthy.  That is the real theme of this book and several others by him.  It is common to much literature in the U.S.

What to do? 

Political work also requires a cultural side and when more working-class stories get told, the 'worm' will turn. Given the present economic situation, it is none too soon.

(Banks’ “Rule of the Bone,” and “Affliction,” Boyle’s “Budding Prospects, “Franzen’s “Freedom,” Wallace’s “Pale King” and “Consider the Lobster” Lehane’s “The Given Day,” Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” “Oil,” and “The Fliver King,” Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman,” Abbey's "The Monkey-Wrench Gang", "Good News" and "Desert Solitaire," all reviewed below). 

Red Frog
August 23, 2015

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