November 5th is traditionally the time to consider the death of the head of state here, although we’re actually “celebrating” the destruction of the would-be assassins not the near-death of the king. Few people will weep for the wretched Saddam Hussein; how many would would weep for Chimpy these days if the headlines were reversed?
The road to hell
Cormac McCarthy’s vision of a post-apocalyptic America in The Road is terrifying, but also beautiful and tender, says Alan Warner.
Saturday, November 4, 2006
by Cormac McCarthy
256pp, Picador, £16.99
Shorn of history and context, Cormac McCarthy’s other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle. This is a very great novel, but one that needs a context in both the past and in so-called post-9/11 America.
We can divide the contemporary American novel into two traditions, or two social classes. The Tough Guy tradition comes up from Fenimore Cooper, with a touch of Poe, through Melville, Faulkner and Hemingway. The Savant tradition comes from Hawthorne, especially through Henry James, Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald. You could argue that the latter is liberal, east coast/New York, while the Tough Guys are gothic, reactionary, nihilistic, openly religious, southern or fundamentally rural.
The Savants’ blood line (curiously unrepresentative of Americans generally) has gained undoubted ascendancy in the literary firmament of the US. Upper middle class, urban and cosmopolitan, they or their own species review themselves. The current Tough Guys are a murder of great, hopelessly masculine, undomesticated writers, whose critical reputations have been and still are today cruelly divergent, adrift and largely unrewarded compared to the contemporary Savant school. In literature as in American life, success must be total and contrasted “failure” fatally dispiriting.
But in both content and technical riches, the Tough Guys are the true legislators of tortured American souls. They could include novelists Thomas McGuane, William Gaddis, Barry Hannah, Leon Rooke, Harry Crews, Jim Harrison, Mark Richard, James Welch and Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy is granddaddy to them all. New York critics may prefer their perfidy to be ignored, comforting themselves with the superlatives for All the Pretty Horses, but we should remember that the history of Cormac McCarthy and his achievement is not an American dream but near on 30 years of neglect for a writer who, since The Orchard Keeper in 1965, produced only masterworks in elegant succession. Now he has given us his great American nightmare.