Thompson, Hunter S. (2009), Hell’s Angels, Penguin
Hell’s Angels, originally published in 1966, holds up remarkably well these days. It’s a wonderfully readable piece of journalism, exhibiting a singular literary voice finding its bearings and its author, Hunter S. Thompson, stands today as one of the most astonishing American literary figures of this past century. His vast work is yet to be collected and properly editorially assessed, but at least it’s out there, in many great editions, and almost annually something new is added. The most recent publication was a selection of his interviews, published as Ancient Gonzo Wisdom (highly recommended), and in 2012 the third and last volume of his letters, which has been delayed for a few years now, will hopefully be published. His work is political, it is both loud and tender, the work of a sensitive literary talent driven to the brink by a disintegrating country and the oppressive forces of the ‘silent majority’. Within less than ten years after seriously taking up journalism Thompson exploded onto the literary scene and evolved more and more into the brash, whiskey-swilling, gun-toting madman known the world over. Thompson traveled through his own and other countries, trying to assess the madness, the violence and hate that seemed to crop up everywhere; as a reaction to that he developed his signature style, ‘Gonzo Journalism’, or, as he called it “Total Subjectivity, as opposed to the bogus demand of Objectivity”. He is often carelessly lumped in with Mailer, Wolfe and Talese and the rest of the reactionary ‘New Journalism’ pack, when, in fact, his brand of genius is completely, unmistakably different. Thompson belongs to distinct literary tradition that includes writers like those of 19th century German romanticism. He does it, however, with an added strong dose of resentment and, well, loathing. Additionally, Thompson was, at least for a sizable portion of his literary career, an incredibly sharp and sober observer of the world around him, and a valuable commentator on culture and politics.
His best books are probably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In these two books he honed both his observations and his mastery of language and registers to a fine point. These are extraordinary achievements, among the finest achievements in journalistic writing in the 20th century, written with urgency, clarity and fantastic stylistic instincts. However, Thompson’s madcap persona with all its idiosyncrasies (immortalized as Uncle Duke by Garry Trudeau), the drugs, girls, and the later pressure of having to be the oddball, drinking whiskey, shooting his dozens of guns and making mad statements, all this fell back on his work and harmed its precision and even the urgent tone of much of it. The rest of his work, although it contains standout masterpieces like The Curse of Lono (1983) and Kingdom of Fear (2003), is less consistent, less overall fantastic. It really is those ten years between 1965 and 1975 that Thompson was at the top of his game, producing work that has entered the American literary canon long since. Hell’s Angels, his first book in that decade, is clearly the work of a writer still learning to use his voice, but it’s still a hell of a read, worth reading and rereading, worth thinking about and discussing. There’s a reason why this book keeps being reprinted in dozens of editions, and it’s not (or not only) its sensationalist subject matter. The book finds Thompson mingling with the infamous motorcycle gang, accompanying them on runs, following them to one of Ken Kesey’s legendary parties, hanging with them at bars. The central epiphanies, the turning points of the book are all buttressed or informed or even prompted by events witnessed by Thompson, although he has not participated in most described events in a book that is as more a history of the Hell’s Angels as it is a first hand account of their dealings. That said, Thompson’s use of his own experience is strategically placed to provide a sound, personal foundation to a slightly meandering narrative.
Hell’s Angels consists of four chapters and a postscript. The first chapter and the postscript are introductions and conclusions to the story of Thompson’s encounter with the gang. Technically speaking, the first chapter in particular is wonderfully done, conveying at once a general impression of the men on their bikes, their particular impression on Thompson and in his life, and a sense of cultural context. This first, short chapter, titled “Roll em, boys” contains in nuce much of the structural complexities and themes of the book to come; it feels like a finished, painstakingly crafted text. This, incidentally, is true for the entire book. It wasn’t until around 1972 that Thompson abandoned his careful drafting. This book is amazingly well wrought, merging disparate elements like newspaper articles, experiences and historical excurses into a rollicking, coherent narrative. If you come to this book looking for the slightly mad Thompson of his later work, you’re not going to find him here. The author of this work is a thoughtful, ambitious and thoroughly talented young man walking a thin line between outrageous experiences and sober research. There is no element here that feels accidental, nothing out of place; every description and every phrase is purposeful and effective. There is something excessive about Thompson’s post-1972 work, which is part of an attempt to provide a non-reductive view of the world, a reporting that contains all the chaos within the limits of an essay or a whole book. That is not yet the case in this book. The author of Hell’s Angels clearly worked from the assumption that you can impose a frame and a narrative on something like “[t]he Menace, […], like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus”. The language is impassioned, literary and sober, depending on the section or chapter. Except for the postscript, every chapter is a mixture of lived events and cultural and historical criticism. The two-page postscript describes the event that put an end to Thompson’s close association with the gang (this is expounded upon in this unforgettable TV interview). The longest of the chapters in between first chapter and postscript, “The Hoodlum Circus and The Statutory Rape of Bass Lake” is the most impressive and has remained the most controversial section of the whole book.
It’s the most impressive because, 100 pages into the book, this is the first extended description of Thompson’s year with the biker gang. At its center is the annual 4th of July run, a “run” being a mass outing of one or more motorcycle gang on a particular weekend of boozing, playing and fighting. The impression of a horde of bearded, black-clad motorcycle enthusiasts descending on some small Midwest town is fearsome, and in 1964, when the 4th of July run takes place that Thompson took part in, the locals in Bass Lake, where that year’s destination was, are forewarned, and were armed to the teeth. The run allows Thompson to explain the group mechanisms active in the Hell’s Angels and also to show how at that time regular people, cops and the gang members interacted. As everywhere else in the book, this chapter is only roughly linear, jumping to different events that happened before and after the run, explaining cultural backgrounds and specific prejudice. One of those explanations, and probably the most extensive one, as well as the one that made the book controversial, is centered on the topic of sex and rape. The Hell’s Angels are portrayed as insatiable purveyors of sex in various forms. They are casually sexual in contact with one another, but what’s an issue is that they regularly gang rape women. It is uncomfortable to read through a long, repeated account of abuse directed at women, and to have to listen to the Angels’ ridiculous self-important defensive explanations. What’s worse is that in many cases, Thompson appears to be standing close by, his tape recorder turned on, his journalist’s ears twitching, doing nothing. The book itself also contains no condemnation of this sexual practice. All this is difficult to read, but it is, critics often assure us, somewhat cushioned by the general air of disapproval that swathes the whole book. Thompson makes it clear that he does not agree with the vaguely right wing, misogynist, violent attitude that defines much of what the Hell’s Angels stand for. But he doesn’t condemn them except in some strategic instances, because they are not the (only) enemy in his sights. This trade-off of ‘real’ enemies vs. actually observed victims is itself violently misogynist in structure and makes this book, like many other instances in Thompson’s work, deeply disturbing to the reader.
Unlike a lot of his later work, and despite the impression that the past two paragraphs might have conveyed, the participation of the author in the events described in the book is actually much less central. At its heart, Hell’s Angels is arguably less about the havoc wrought by the bearded, carelessly violent gang members, than it is about the narrative, the evolving legend of the Hell’s Angels, engineered by lazy and bigoted journalists and lazy and bigoted local politicians. This is not to say that Thompson approves of the methods of the gang he observes. He does not. But the intellectual focus of the book is still on the distortion created by the national and local press, and the effect this has on local communities and the Hell’s Angels themselves. At one point, late in the book, he writes
I was not surprised that the eight articles gave eight different viewpoints on the riot, because no reporter can be on every scene and they get their information from different people. But it would have been reassuring to find a majority agreement on something as basic as the number of arrests; it would have made the rest of the information easier to live with.
This passage, and others like it, displays a disappointment with his colleagues that provided fertile grounds for the journalistic cynicism that completely pervades his book about the 1972 presidential campaign, wherein he gleefully recounts facts and rumors he made up and spread through the newsroom. By contrast, Hell’s Angels is conscientious in its use of facts and numbers, and frequently compares public and journalistic rhetoric with the facts on file, a concern that was front and center in his work as early as 1965, when he published a newspaper article in The Nation (read part of it here) about the gang and their alleged exploits. In his book, Thompson quotes Kierkegaard, who said that “[t]he daily press is the evil principle of the modern world“, and yet the book itself is a masterpiece of journalism; this is not a contradiction. The attack on the ‘daily press’ is of course not an attack on all journalistic endeavors, but an attack on the outrage machinery that is fueled by politicians and journalists alike, a machine that enforces a strict (and sometimes irrational) moral code on everyone by steering public opinion in the right direction. Thompson shows how politicians and journalists support each other in building a narrative that has surprisingly little connection to the world of facts and figures. This is impressive, and always well done. But he doesn’t stop there.
It’s the peculiar nature of the Hell’s Angels that allows him to show how these narratives then influence the world outside, not just by turning the population against the invading motorcyclists. They also affect the Hell’s Angels themselves. In an early chapter, Thompson points out to what extent the Hell’s Angels were a product both of scaremongering journalism and of popular culture. Apart from the influence that films like Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels had, a veteran gang member is quoted as saying “We were all Marlon Brando”, describing the effect of the 1953 film The Wild One on early 1950s motorcycle groups. That film itself is based on the so-called Hollister riots, a 1947 motorcycle rally that got out of control. The Hollister riots were greatly exaggerated by the press, in particular Life magazine, and were thus turned into material befitting a sensationalist movie. But here is where Thompson’s definition of his own work and of journalism enters the picture. Journalists like the ones working for Life, who pretend to present a sober account of the facts, can and should be held up to these standards. After all, there’s a whole poetics of journalism writing based around the use of tenses and phrases that create just that impression of objectivity. Thompson’s take on this has two aspects. On the one hand he points out how so much of mainstream journalism supports political narratives, pursuing a narrow agenda, instead of being ‘objective’. On the other hand, he rejects the basic idea of journalistic objectivity e vestigio and instead pursues a very subjective kind of journalism, one that is open and honest about the place of the writer within his narrative and the wider framework of truth and objectivity. Something that he would manage more seamlessly in his later work is still a very obvious affair in this book: he takes pains showing us not just where he was in events he describes. He also turns the use of sources into a narrative, discussing his tapes, his research and talks with outlaws. There is no information in this book that isn’t accounted for and completely tied to its author. There is no pretense of an objectivity beyond what limits the author has.
And yet, this is no weakness. The example of The Wild One is instrumental here. In the same section that I just mentioned, he closes by saying that the movie,
despite an admittedly fictional treatment, was an inspired piece of film journalism. Instead of institutionalizing common knowledge (…), it told a story that was only beginning to happen and which was inevitably influenced by the film.
In all of Thompson’s written output, there is really no better summary of his poetics than this. It well describes what he was to focus on from then on: telling a story that is bigger than the event actually described, a story that tells a larger truth, and a story that does not just repeat the same old mendacious narratives. The exaggeration that he often uses is not a deviation from truth, but it serves to put what’s really true into sharp focus, which probably reminds most of us of Adorno’s claims in his classic “Kulturindustrie” essay. Within the searing pages of Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson isn’t yet the genius writer that he would turn into a few years later, but he’s damn close. The book is a fantastic read of course, written and constructed by one of the biggest and smartest literary talents of his time. But it also shows the direction that his and others’ work would be taking soon. It contains the beginning of an age in its beautiful and clear pages. There are so many reasons to read this book. Pick one. Read it.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)
I have declaimed a few Berryman sonnets tonight, all from the delightful Sonnets to Chris. Below a particularly nice one, one of my favorites, for obvious reasons, a late one, too, Sonnet 115.
As usual I am up before the sun
begins to warm this intolerable place
and I have stared all night into your face
but am not wiser thereby. Everyone
rattles his weakness or his thing undone,
I shake you like a rat. Open disgrace
yawns all before me: have I left a trace,
a spoor? Clouding it over, I look for my gun.
She’s hidden it. I won’t sing on of that.
Whiskey is bracing. Failures are my speed,
I thrive on ends, the dog is at my door
in heat, the neighborhood is male except one cat
and they thresh on my stoop. Prevent my need,
Someone, and come & find me on the floor.
If I can’t keep up, who can? And if nobody can keep up with all of it, how does anyone decide what slice, what segment, what section, to follow instead? I think I can keep up with books, more or less, which are countable, finite sets of things (especially since they do come in the mail): but if the proliferating, ramifying, exciting discourse about poetry now takes place in a million web journals, at all hours of the day and night, I’m not sure I can keep up with them. I’m not sure that I could have kept up with them when I was 20, or 25, or 29
Our films may be understood as parables of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man, a study of the conditions under which this fight for recognition (as Hegel put it) or demand for acknowledgment (as I have put it) is a struggle for mutual freedom, especially of the views each holds of the other. This gives the films of our genre a Utopian cast. They harbor a vision which they know cannot fully be domesticated, inhabited, in the world we know. They are romances. Showing us our fantasies, they express the inner agenda of a nation that conceives Utopian longings and commitments for itself.”
from Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. I’m currently reading a lot of Cavell for a paper, this is a slight work, but makes for great reading.
Wallace, in life a shy, considered, and considerate man (or so he seemed to me when we met at a mutual friend’s New York reading) would most probably have been embarrassed by the drama in which he is currently starring. He would also have tried to understand it, to give it his full attention, even, or perhaps especially, when he found it boring. The rapidity of his canonisation feels startling, even though it’s deserved. There are already grumblings online about the emergence of a “David Foster Wallace industry”, and the publication of The Pale King will only take this to the next level, but the truth is that Wallace’s new level of posthumous celebrity isn’t the work of some corporate publicity department. It has proceeded from the ground up as fans have unearthed uncollected texts, written criticism and organised conferences. Wallace’s reputation will only grow, and like one of the broken columns beloved of Romantic painters, The Pale King will stand, complete in its incompleteness, as his most substantial fictional achievement.
An anonymous eighth-century Irish poem translated by Lady Gregory:
Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (trans.): Donal Óg
It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.
You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!
And besides, really,” [A.C. Grayling] adds with a withering little laugh, “how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don’t collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It’s like sleeping furiously.”
No, silly. It’s like militant non-smokers. That‘s what it comes down to, and that is the whole problem (well, part of it, anyway). Oh, I’m tired already. Let’s move on.
We tend to forget that “modern poetry” is a venerable institution. Prose poetry (Rimbaud’s own term for what he was writing in Illuminations) had already been produced by Lautréamont and Baudelaire; Rimbaud mentioned to a friend the influence of the latter’s work in the genre. Free verse, today ubiquitous, was used by Rimbaud in two of the Illuminations. Yet, more essentially, absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete: In Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”). In the twentieth century, the coexisting, conflictingviews of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many of this fertile destabilization. Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an “intense and rapid dream,” in his words, is still emitting pulses. If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.—ja
Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar;
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman’s bag;
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray
We part not with thee at this meeting day.
Although I greatly enjoy Margaret Atwood’s novels and especially her essays, I am of two minds about her poetry. What do you think? Below one of her best known poems:
Margaret Atwood: Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing
The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.
I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.
Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.
We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.
I feel that Thom Gunn is an underrated poet these days, certainly he doesn’t seem to receive the attention that his excellent work deserves (but there is an excellent new book on Gunn’s poetry out by Joshua Weiner, which I highly, highly recommend). Get the Collected Poems, published by FSG. Trust me. They are worth your money and time. Below a poem I enjoy a lot.
Thom Gunn: The Hug
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
McCarthy, Cormac (2005), No Country for Old Men, Picador
This is just it: a novelist who has produced several incontestable masterpieces, who is generally regarded as being one of the foremost artists of his craft and his generation, that novelist is bound to be subjected to a less forgiving critical glare than the overall mediocre writer. Cormac McCarthy is one of the former, a writer regularly named in discussions of possible Nobel Prize candidates, a writer who, in Blood Meridian and Suttree, has produced two of the best novels of his age. After his last major achievement, the “Border” trilogy, which ended with the beautifully elegiac Cities of the Plain (1998), he waited for almost a decade before publishing his ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, which is so dull and mediocre that it almost seems a different writer’s pale imitation of McCarthy’s celebrated style and tone. Less like an inspired and inspiring work of art, this genre hybrid is more of a routine exercise in a style that McCarthy can pull off by now with comparable ease. As in the somewhat operatic late novels of other old novelists like Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Günter Grass or John Updike, this novel leaves us sure of the author’s competence, his basic ability to fuse knowledge and insight into a reasonably original prose artifact; as in those cases, we leave the book largely unmoved, witnesses to an author’s languid self-examination. But however little I liked books like Exit Ghost or Indignation, they still shone with stylistic polish, written in the dazzling prose that these writers have become famous for. There’s precious little of that in No Country for Old Men. On the contrary, the novel makes painfully clear on every single page why McCarthy’s great novels are as great as they are: because everything fits perfectly. In his books, the writing doesn’t enhance the structure or characters or the plot, it is inextricably connected to these elements, and in his ninth novel we realize almost instantly that as soon as something is out of place in McCarthy’s wondrous literary architecture, the whole building collapses into a malformed heap. This is not to say that No Country for Old Men is a bad novel. It’s not. For most other writers, it would certainly be regarded as a great success. The finicky complexities of structure and ideas, the ambiguous moral landscape, and the nimble way he fuses several genres and modes of writing would be admirable in many other writers, but his name on the cover of the book mostly highlights the flaws of his (so far) penultimate novel. As a reader, I can’t help but see these flaws on its every page, so it’s hard for me to recommend it. Nevertheless, whatever its deficiencies, No Country for Old Men is, at the very least, an entertaining romp through a modern day western, part reality, part allegory. If you enjoy humorous, well-paced and atmospheric crime novels, you’re likely to enjoy it. Just try to forget that this is the same man who brought us Blood Meridian and Suttree.
No Country for Old Men is a crime novel/western hybrid, set in modern day Texas. It consists of three different kinds of short chapters. The first kind of chapter (and the first chapter of the book) is reserved for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who is the most dominant of the book’s three protagonists. His chapters are printed in italics and are narrated by Bell himself, in the first person. Thus, the very first sentence of the novel we hear is one spoken by Bell: “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville” and the last sentence is also his: “And then I woke up.” One would assume that he is, in fact, the narrator of the story, but he’s not, or anyway not in any obvious way. He does, however, frame the story in several ways. His chapters (or section if you like) are both part of the story and outside of it. As a man involved in the action, we can follow him through the story and learn more about what happens. On the other hand, as a grizzled old sheriff, with decades of experience at this game, he infuses his sections with two kinds of outside commentary. One is his memory of his years and years of work. Through Bell’s voice, we see the unfolding events in a historical context, and we quickly get a good idea of how the cultural landscape is connected to the violent and desperate individuals playing a game of cat and mouse in it. McCarthy’s sense of history is always very strong in his prose, but this time it’s more heavy-handed as we listen to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ramble about the past and the present. Although ‘ramble’ may be too negative: the choice of words, the phrasing, syntax, everything in Bell’s chapters is endowed with the cadences of the wise old storyteller. McCarthy places accentual deviations from grammatical rules judiciously. As with the other factors, too, this is done in as heavy-handed a manner as possible. This is not oral speech taken down, thus lacking the refinements of writing, despite the dropped ‘g’s in gerunds and participles. Instead it is speech carefully crafted to resemble oral speech, most obviously by the fact that the apostrophe in words like ‘won’t’ and ‘didn’t’ is usually left out. Now, this deviation cannot be heard, it’s nothing but a signal to the reader: listen up, this is traditional storytelling. I go on about this at length because for whatever reason, McCarthy, in this late period of his work, starts to rely on crutches overmuch. The dropped apostrophes are one aspect. Many more follow in the pages to come (The Road, only marginally better than No Country for Old Men, is similarly full of them). McCarthy needs these sections to be clearly identifiable as oral, however, since he expects the reader to extend the local historical tradition that Bell outlines and read the whole book in connection with a local literary tradition, the tale told in the evening at the campfire or on the back porch.
As I pointed out in this review, the oral storyteller often has a moral and epistemological authority, and it is this authority that the novel wants, no, needs to invoke here. As the novel progresses, so do Sheriff Bell’s culturally and historically based pessimistic murmurings. This is the other kind of outside commentary, and it’s worth distinguishing it from the first one; in part certainly because one is backwards oriented (assessing the past, establishing a historical landscape wherein the novel’s events can be situated) whereas the other is looking forward, in the sense that Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” is, which lent McCarthy’s novel its title. Both poem and novel end on a vision, but while Yeats’ poem ends on a phantasmagorical vision of “the holy city of Byzantium”, McCarthy’s ends on a symbol of the past that has slipped away, a past that has been replaced by shootouts and drug deals in the desert. In this sense, the novel isn’t, as I claimed earlier, a crime novel/western hybrid. It’s a Western that’s been taken over by the mechanized, brutal reality of our time. The basic elements, given enough abstraction, are still there, the landscape is still the same, and the Texan drawl of Sheriff Bell that frames the whole thing is also still there. Within all that, however, a new story takes place, and we are to feel the loss that it represents to the world Bell used to know. Now, the novel’s grasp of reality and of a dependable moral compass is a bit tenuous since Bell’s sections are so clearly marked as objects. There is no inherent support for these sections within the novel; on the contrary, the very first sentence of the novel could be said to undermine Bell’s sections completely, since according to Jim Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum, the state of Texas has never executed anyone in a gas chamber. This inaccuracy, placed prominently at the very beginning of the story, is an important sign post if we look for instructions as to how to read Sheriff Bell’s chapters. The other two kinds of chapters are written from the (third person) perspective of two other central characters, most frequently from that of Llewelyn Moss, Vietnam veteran, and professional welder. It is he who kicks off the novel’s plot when he comes across what’s left of a shootout in the desert: three vehicles, filled with dead (and almost dead) men, as well as several million dollars in cash. After a brief deliberation, he decides to take the money, since, after all, no-one appears to be still alive to lay claim to this particular pot of gold. This is where things get a bit dicey. The money has owners, who send killers in to get it, but more dangerous is a freelance killer, who’s also the third protagonist. Of these three characters, Moss is the most accessible one, he’s an everyman, caught in the crosshairs of bad luck, trying to first save the money and later on just his life, from the relentless pursuit of the professionals in hot pursuit of him.
Moss is unlucky, but he’s also remarkably stupid, making a few crucial mistakes that lead to his having to flee across the Mexican border and back. We become so invested in his story (although he’s only a cardboard character, really) that after a while, we may consider him the protagonist, but the last third of the novel quickly disabuses us of such illusions, if we ever held them. In fact, as it turns out, Moss is merely the human interest meat in an allegory sandwich, although he and his chapters do take up more space within the novel than the other two. Of the two, I already discussed Sheriff Bell, a stand-in for the history of the landscape, for the oral storyteller and an ambiguous moral authority. The other one is the aforementioned freelance killer, Anton Chigurh (which adventurous surname is pronounced similar to ‘sugar’). Chigurh’s chapters take up the least amount of space and yet his importance in the overall structure of the novel is equal to that of Bell. Where Bell provides a framework and perspective, Chigurh is the evil ghost in the machine. He is a cold-hearted murderer, but like Bell, he likes order, and his killings can be seen as a way to restore order. Like Bell, he has a rigid moral and ethical code that governs his actions. In many ways, he is the modern day counterpart of McCarthy’s earlier creation Judge Holden, the main villain of Blood Meridian and one of the best and most harrowing villains in recent literary history. To readers of that earlier book, it’s probably clear that Holden is representative of a more archaic, ancient evil. He isn’t merely a wrongdoer or a bad person, he’s evil, in the full sense of that word. The same, almost otherworldly, impression is left by Anton Chigurh, but while Judge Holden, a historical figure, was anchored to his time and place, this isn’t quite true for Chigurh, except in one sense: technology. McCarthy’s use of weapons in No Country for Old Men is close to fetish, the way he caresses names and processes, the way he offers to us a precise and accurate idea of every weapon used, and of the uses of these weapons. In many ways, I believe one could read Chigurh and the use of violence and weapons as a warped, disjointed, patriarchal take on theories like Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg. The book never qualifies this take on technology, it doesn’t offer a position on the progress of modernity outside of the flawed stances of its protagonists. But the fact that the sections that seem most normative are undercut by Chigurh and by the author himself leaves the novel as a whole in a state of uncertainty. McCarthy, as in his good and best books, reaches towards myth and tradition, but the novel itself collapses at the end. There is unfinished business in No Country for Old Men but McCarthy is no longer able or willing to take care of it. It is this twilight of two modern narratives that is the most brilliant thing about McCarthy’s overall unsatisfactory novel. But too much of this is obnvious, too much of this is presented in broad daylight, as an empty gesture to an empty stage. What’s left is murder and suspense, and a taciturn narrative about violence and modernity that could have been worse. It could have been better though.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)
Yes, I think, any minute now [...] the insight will come. Clarity. [...]. Of course it never happens. Years of therapy and it never happens. [...]That’s the problem with reality, that’s the fallacy of therapy: [...] It assumes that insight alone is a transformative force. But the truth is, it doesn’t work that way. [...] In all likelihood you’re going to keep on doing the same old things. You’ll be the same old person. [...] I want an angel to swoop down on me and talk me out of suicide. because at this point, that’s what it’s going to take.
From a book I found while digging through a crate of books behind my desk, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. Oh the books I own. I can’t recommend it or anything since I don’t remember it. Not a good sign, isn’t it. In my head I can’t distinguish it from Coover’s Gerald’s Party. No idea why. Very different books aren’t they. This passage is nice though. Here’s another one, from the same book:
And his upbeat mood, rather than having the contagious effect he’d probably hoped for, made me resist him, made me more defiant in my depression. I hated him for not being depressed. He seemed a fool – everyone who didn’t feel like me was a fool. I alone knew the truth about life, knew, that it all was a miserable downward spiral that you could either admit or ignore, but sooner or later we were all going to die.