Friday, August 19, 2011

OUTER DARK by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy suffered no sophomore jinx. Quite the opposite, in fact. Three years after his highly promising 1965 debut, The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy delivered Outer Dark, his first great book and the work in which he first struck the seam of surreal apocalyptic violence that he would continue to mine for the next 40 years. A double-picaresque that follows both a young woman's wanderings through Appalachia in search of her abandoned baby and her brother's wanderings in search of her, Outer Dark is a marvelously lyrical tale of American terror. It's the kind of book Paul Bowles might have written had he never gone abroad, the kind Stephen King might have written had he been a better and more Faulknerian writer. The panoply of horrors to which McCarthy, like a loathsome god, delivers his protagonists begins with the usual Southern Gothic incest and insanity, moves on to murder and lynching, and doesn't cease until we've been subjected to a scene of vampiristic cannibalism that anticipates both the sublime terrors of Blood Meridian and the horror movie excesses of his more recent works (e.g. The Road). On the final page of Outer Dark McCarthy shows us an image that might represent the entire novel: a road disappearing into a gray, deathly, impassable swamp. This is the Cormackian Rome to which all the author's roads lead, a miserable sink of death. This swamp is the true and only setting of Outer Dark. The reader has spent the preceding 241 pages wandering feverishly through it, smelling the sulphur reek of this miasmic "spectral waste." It should also be noted that the swamp, which is approached by the male protagonist but not the female, is described in explicitly female terms. The mud that sucks Culla Holme's shoe is described as rising in a "vulvate welt." The swamp, like the pond with the "singing willow rim" in Hart Crane's "Repose of Rivers," is an image of female genitalia as the site of an incestuous return to origins, of male penetration as a violation of the incest taboo. It's a fundamentally misogynistic and puritanical image of the vagina as a thing to be fled. And since the novel contains obvious allusions to the Oedipus myth (the baby abandoned in the wilderness, for one), it should surprise no reader that the thing these characters flee will be the thing to which they are inevitably returned. The forbidding vulval swamp is both the provocation and the only end of Culla's wandering. Like his sister Rinthy, it is the female object that equally attracts and repels him--consciously repels and unconsciously attracts. It is the motor that will keep him moving through the Dantean hills of McCarthy's Appalachia until he finds at last his final swamp.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"The Last Good Country" by Ernest Hemingway

While "The Last Good Country" is included in two collections of Hemingway's short stories (the Finca Vigia Edition Complete Short Stories and The Nick Adams Stories), it is in fact neither a story nor complete. It seems to be the beginning of a novel that Hemingway never came close to finishing. (I base this conclusion on the published text, with the knowledge that Hemingway's posthumous publications sometimes represent only a portion of the manuscripts from which they are edited, as was the case with The Garden of Eden--see the highly illuminating endnotes to Frederick Crews's essay on Hemingway in The Critics Bear it Away.) If he had finished it, "The Last Good Country" may well have been his Huckleberry Finn, a much less comic and much more erotic Finn in which the youthful central character lights out for the unspoiled wilderness in the company of his younger sister and in which the pastoral retreat features incestuous desire, gender-bending and a literalization of Huck's Fiedleresque homoeroticism. It's tempting to grasp at this eroticism and argue that Hemingway was unable to finish this piece because its sexual themes cut too close to the authorial bone (as it were). But I suspect that "The Last Good Country" might have been abandoned for more purely aesthetic reasons. The finished novel/novella would have alternated between the narrative of Nick and his sister in the woods and that of the game wardens' search for them (centering on the town), a classic American contrast between 'wildness' and 'domesticity,' 'country' and 'town,' 'civilization' and 'savagery.' The problem lies in the fact that the 'wilderness' scenes greatly overpower the rest of the story. Everything memorable in the published text, everything interesting, everything original, takes place between Nick and 'Littless' in the woods, and Hemingway surely realized this, surely saw that the form to which he was married required him to spend too much time with characters and situations that were insufficiently inspiring, too many pages with the game wardens and the townsfolk. And so he let this story go and moved on to something else, leaving us with this tantalizing fragment that shows occasional flashes of greatness and leaves me wishing he had lived to reconceive it. It could have been brilliant.

Monday, August 1, 2011

THE BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy

The first book in Ellroy's already-classic LA Quartet (The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz are the others), The Black Dahlia is a very pleasant surprise. It is easily the equal of any noir mystery ever written, even the genre-defining works of Hammett, Chandler and Cain. The pacing is swift, the prose taut and sharp, the narrative voice almost completely convincing. The seeming ease with which Ellroy slips into the 1940s, recreating its atmosphere of deep and blatant racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, casual brutality (happy days are most definitely not here again in Ellroy's LA--or ours, for that matter) should cause all period novelists to turn at least slightly green. There is much to praise in this book, and much to criticize, but the aspect that most puzzled and intrigued me is the novel's false ending. As anyone who has read it knows, The Black Dahlia seems to come to a satisfying conclusion 100 pages before its end, with the title murder unsolved (as it officially remains in un-Ellroyed reality) and the hero married. I suspect that I'm not the only reader who arrived at page 258 and wondered what the remaining third of the book could possibly contain. To read these pages and find that they contain a rather typical (if finally surprising) solution to the crime was disappointing at first--as though Ellroy, having written a novel that departed from genre conventions, was compelled to bring his story back into line. But there is another, more interesting way to read the double ending of The Black Dahlia. Maybe the story does in fact end with Bucky and Kay's wedding, and the remainder of the novel is pure fantasy. The last 100 pages might be interpreted as Bucky Bleichert's fevered, obsessive, psychotic, noirish fantasy of solving the Dahlia murder. The final denouement is thus not so much Ellroy's genre-fulfillment as Bucky's wish-fulfillment. Unable to solve the case in novelistic 'reality', he solves it in writing, creating a compensatory narrative that relates to his own life much as the novel The Black Dahlia relates to Ellroy's life--a narrative compensation for the unsolved murder of his mother.