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Cormac McCarthy

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Title: All the Pretty Horses
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 1992

When sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole learns that his grandfather is dead and that their farm has to be sold, he avoids the default move into town and instead heads southwards, towards Mexico, with his good friend Lacey Rawlins, there hoping to eek out a living as cowboys. On the road, they meet up with a mysterious boy who claims his name is Jimmy Bevins and who masters a number of skills very rarely seen even in adults. Together, they experience a lot, but the novel’s main focus is on John Grady Cole and his falling in love with the beautiful but unreachable Alejandra.

This being the third book I read by Cormac McCathry, I can without any doubt say that he really is a skilled author. As was clearly seen in both The Road and No Country for Old Men he knows how to use the English language is a simplistic and yet highly successful way, a skill I admire. I listened to this book, which means I cannot comment on the fairly unusual way in which it is written (almost no punctuation, for instance), but I highly doubt my impression would have been any better had I read it visually instead.

Whereas both the previous books had intensely interesting plots and characters, I find All the Pretty Horses lacking in this area. Sure, the story is well-composed and the characters portraits are attracting my attention, but that can only slightly cover the fact that the underlying story simply isn’t interesting at all. It’s classic, it’s been done many times before and thus I quickly lose interest. But it’s still a good book and as such I will award it three snails.

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Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

I usually say that competent authors writing outside their main genre are the ones most likely to write truly fascinating books. I’ve seen this happen a number of times with science fiction, i.e. mainstream or at least non-SF writers making a short foray into the future and hitting solid gold. As far as I know, The Road is the only science fiction novel Cormac McCarthy has written, although I only know him from one previous book, No Country for Old Men. Even though the post-apocalyptic setting of this novel is depressing, degenerate and dark, the workmanship is splendid and shining.

The Road tell the story of a little boy and his father (none of them named in the book), and how they struggle on their journey south, to the coast, away from the onset of winter. Most of humanity is gone, along with the majority of other life forms which formerly thrived in the world. Food is scarce and dangers abundant, not seldom from other humans, who desperately try to sustain themselves in this hell-bent future America.

McCarthy doesn’t spend much time on the greater picture, choosing instead to focus on the boy and his father, which means that the world is mostly glimpsed from what they experience as they walk along the road. This interaction is portrayed through concise dialogues (reminiscent of No Country for Old Men) and a narrative that never feels exaggerated or wasteful. They man is in a very difficult situation, how shall he encourage his son to fight on, even though he himself doubts that there really is any future for any of them? How shall he protect him from the horrors that follow in the wake of the catastrophe?  And, on top of all this, how shall he be able to go on himself, having the knowledge to despair that his son lacks?

The Road is touching in many ways, perhaps because it’s so down-to-earth and realistic, and at the same time, so horrifying. I really enjoy the author’s way of writing, especially since it’s concise and to the point, without feeling even remotely blunt. I wish more experienced writers could move into the realm of science fiction, using their expertise in language and portrayal of characters that some science fiction writers, although otherwise talented, lack, and thus create something as brilliant as Cormac McCarthy has done here. I can see no reason not to give five snails to this novel and recommend it to everybody, especially those who don’t think science fiction is for them.

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Title: No Country for Old Men
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Narrator: Tom Stechschulte
Year: 2005

I first learnt of Comrac McCarthy after a friend recommended his novel The Road (only circumstance made me choose No Country for Old Men first, give me a week or two and I will probably review The Road as well), and later learning that the novel also gave birth to the film with the same name, which has also been recommended to me. The book is quite extraordinary in that it isn’t very extraordinary at all, and yet manages to be very good. I shall try to explain why this apparently paradoxical statement is true.

The story is probably the most important sign of mundanity: after a shootout in the desert close to the Rio Grande, Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss finds the only survivor of a terrible shootout between drug-trafficking gangsters. He also finds a briefcase containing more than two million dollars in cash. Moss leaves the dying Mexican and takes the money with him, but cannot help returning later to help the Mexican. This sparks a hunt for Llewelyn, which is the scarlet thread running through the narrative. Apart from Moss, there are two main characters: Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff and the main protagonist of the novel, and Anton Chigurh, psychopath, hitman and the antagonist.

Similar stories must have been told thousands of times, but still McCarthy does it in a memorable and intriguing way, and I can see a number of reasons for this. Most importantly, the story is split between the three main characters, and although they interlace frequently, it’s not a straightforward narrative. This means that the reader only gets patchy updates on what’s going on, which in this case leads to a novel which is actually thrilling to read (I can’t even remember when that’s happened before). Second, the characters are realistic, but yet unique enough to be interesting. I find Anton Chiguhr with his high-standard villainy to be the most fascinating character; the others are realistic, but perhaps not very unique.

What about language and style? Overall, it’s good. Cormac McCarthy knows when to spell something out and when not to, meaning that the novel is almost exactly as long as it should be (the end being an exception; it’s too long). He relies heavily on dialogue to let the characters tell his story for him, which means that we encounter a lot of “it don’t mean nothing” and “it ain’t them Mexicans” and so on. This lends credibility to the setting and the characters, but also grows quite annoying at times.

Conclusively, No Country for Old Men is quite good, very good in fact. The ending is weak, some characters are boring (although realistic), but on the other hand, the language is nice and the book about as long as it should be. In my case, Tom Stechschulte’s narration made the novel come alive, but I’m quite sure that was as much due to his skill as to the author’s. Four snails to my first Cormac McCarthy novel.

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