Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Reviews Of Books I've Never Read

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy's grandfather, Vern Kuplinksy, on the far right of this photo, took part in hunting the roving packs of mad devil wolves of El Paso, who were rumoured to be able to swallow a baby whole in one gulp as if it were a bite-sized burrito that one might find in your favourite grocer's freezer section, usually next to the 'Tater Tots and perogies. Much of the inspiration and information for The Crossing came from Vern Kuplinsky's journals and the odd notes he'd jot down on flattened strips of beef jerky while on the trail.
You wouldn't think such a serious guy like Cormac McCarthy would use the premise of a joke as the basis of this great novel, but I'm here to set you straight. He does indeed, using the old "why did the chicken cross the road," premise to set up a punchline that goes on for 426 pages, relentless in its pursuit of humour only to come up short every time, toiling in the dust and wind of the Great Plains, lapping at the muddy, roiled waters of the Rio Grande before falling, soiled and weather-beaten, on to the front porch of a Tijuana whorehouse, knife scars raised like braille across its back to be traced by the fingers of blind whores forced into selling their bodies to fund their husbands' iguana farms, the lizard skins turned into purses, wallets and stiletto heeled shoes and the reptile meat used to feed their bastard offspring that wait, eyes squinting into the dusky street, hopes and dreams smashed like a skull upon the rock of a burbling stream where even the dappled sunlight finds no joy of release or purchase upon the shimmering green leaves that shade the water beneath and that carries the blood  away into the vast, unrelenting sway and timeless tidal pull of the Atlantic. That's the kind of punchline Mr. McCarthy confronts us with and I, for one, am glad of it. Of course, in place of the chicken Mr. McCarthy uses a cowboy crossing a road to get to a chicken (the cowboy being quite hungry after crossing the Mesa Verde, one of the many dangerous crossings this cowboy will make throughout the book), but the chicken happens to be in the mouth of El Lobo Diablo of Amarillo, a wolf dog born out of the unholy matrimony of a wolf and a dachshund, its sharp teeth matched by its feral and vicious nature and a sausage-like body for easily evading capture. Long the nemesis of local Amarillo ranchers and its hunting grounds stretching as far as Arkansas on the east and Yosemite on the west with the odd jaunt into Montana to forage for gribblemeyer berries and ocelot brains, this devil's sausage of a wolf-dog could never be caught nor tamed until the cowboy, who was really more of a boy than a man or a cow, saw not just a brutish animal with a chicken in its mouth, but perhaps a friend, a pal, a buddy on the road like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
The author, Cormac McCarthy, stands front and center of the picture, the photo taken at a writer's conference and series of readings in Tijuana, hoping to boost sales of books and call attention to literary arts funding. Not even a sombrero can wipe the sombre expression from his face and it's this kind of solemnity that makes him such a foreboding and intimidating figure in the world of arts and letters, not to mention he can crush punctuation under the heel of his cowboy boot just like he's squishing silverfish into dust.
The young cowboy's name is Emmett Gristle, and he leaves the family ranch after a falling out with his father over his calf-roping technique that his father, Clifton, finds unorthodox, but really he's just jealous because young Emmett can rope twice as many calves as him in half the time and that's including bathroom and beef jerky breaks. His technique includes not only supple lasso dexterity but also hypnotism, remedial cud chewing and sequin-studded chaps. Father and son turn to fisticuffs to settle their differences, Emmett suffering a black eye and Clifton enduring a ruptured spleen, which puts a damper on his participation in the annual El Paso refried bean eating competition, and Emmett sets off across the badlands full of piss, vinegar, rattlesnake spit and refried bean gas. That's when he encounters El Lobo Diablo, the dachshund devil-wolf of Amarillo, chewing on a chicken down on the banks of dry river bed and Emmett's hunger, knowing no bounds and his stomach rumbling like thunderhead clouds looming on the horizon, forces Emmett to befriend this beast and share in its poultry and any friendship a shared meal may bring.
In an earlier image of the author, his sombre expression is just as evident as is the sombrero upon his head, so apparently he liked and still continues to enjoy wearing this type of hat. No stranger to the sombrero, he's also quite at home with fence posts and foliage that can hide all manner of malevolent beings, but Mr. McCarthy stands, or in this case sits, steadfast, calm and unperturbed about any dangers that may lay ahead or behind in the trees. The mustache, of course, is a youthful affectation, when Mr. McCarthy was still frequenting the dance-halls for female company, and it has since been replaced with deep lines upon his face that accentuate his wisdom, grace and fondness for Canadian rye whiskey, pork rinds and hard boiled eggs, a diet that's been known to put hair on your chest that will wave in the wind like wheat on the Prairies and grow thicker than the coat on a winter grizzly.
Well, I don't have to tell you that the two fast become friends, or maybe I do have to tell you because you haven't read the book but I have so heed my words and if you have any doubts, keep them under your hat, or sombrero in this case (by the way, a sombrero holds many more doubts than say, a fedora or bowler and is highly recommended if you're a Doubting Thomas and on that note, Doubting Thomas, or Thomas the Apostle, from the bible and father of Peeping Tom, besides being famous for doubting Jesus' resurrection until the other apostles ganged up on him and thumped him soundly with their sandals until his hair shirt was covered in blood and frankincense soot, was also known as the apostle who crossed vast tracts of land spreading the teachings of his pal and fair weather savior, Jesus, or as his friends called him after a few drinks, Jimbo, delivering the good word from India to Greenland where he got into a fight with a walrus after too many shots of aquavit, and had the tusk scars to prove it and so, one can deduce, that there is a correlation between Doubting Thomas and young Emmett Gristle, utilizing the crossing theme as a metaphor for a spiritual journey although one battles a walrus and the other must wrestle a chicken from the jaws of a dachshund devil wolf, but the results are the same. Emmett and El Lobo Diablo set off across the mesa, scrabbling through the hardscrabble, pining through the scrub pines, dry mesquite and sage scratching at their capillaries and legs and eyes.
In this painting by famed artist, Mitch Clorbisol, Doubting Thomas compares his walrus tusk scars with Jesus's (Jimbo's) crucifixion wounds while the apostles, John and Ed, look on. As you can see by Ed's red nose, he'd been hitting the sauce pretty hard since Jimbo's cross hanging, which is yet another cross in the whole crossing motif that riddles this novel like bullet holes in the body of an assassinated mafioso.
Just let me make one quick aside here and say, because I base my reviews not only on the depth and breadth of the content of a book but also its silverfish killing capabilities (the New York Times along with other reputable book review pages should take a tip from me and adopt this reviewing technique I believe, because where would War and Peace be if it were just a literary endeavour instead of also a lethal killing machine and Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past, well, it would simply be a remembrance of things half-assed and crass if it hadn't proved to be such an effective silverfish crushing tool, and in numerous volumes to boot), that Mr. McCarthy creates some very muscular, very manly prose and in doing so, impels the reader to take matters into their own hands and smote the vermin beneath their feet. Never have I felt so much a man as when, brandishing my copy of The Crossing, I wiped out entire silverfish families with not a pang of conscience or any sense of moral recompense. Hats off to Mr. McCarthy, whether it be ten-gallon or sombrero, for invigorating this reader, for one, into reaffirming his masculine self to the point that I almost stood up to my landlady, Mrs. Grabowsky, when she told me to get my galoshes out of the hallway before, and I quote, she "shoved them so far up my ass my prostate could take a walk in the rain without getting wet." I say almost because she had that crazy glint in her eye (the one without the cataract), and though I believe I could take her in a fight, I also think she might manage one galosh up my behind, which, considering their formidable rubbers soles, is a thought I don't relish, especially during the extraction process.
Here's a photo of the famous, fighting Rubber Boot Ass Extraction Brigade, sometimes referred to as the Vulcanized Rubber Rectal Retrieval Team. Highly trained in secret boot camps scattered throughout the Arctic Circle, this would be the fate I'd be facing if my landlady, Mrs. Grabowsky, had her way with my galoshes, the strength of three gin and tonics behind her flabby-armed efforts and nicotine-clouded aim.
Now, back to the novel. One might ask, if say, you were sitting down with Mr. McCarthy over blood sausage and rice pudding (his good friend and former amateur astronaut and rubber tree tapper, Blythe Crimpton, has said these are two of Mr. McCarthy's favourite foods), which crossing was he expressly alluding to. Because this book is rife with crossings. Railway crossings, pedestrian crossings, crossed wires, crossed connections, star-crossed lovers, hot cross buns, crossed eyes, crossed legs, crossed fingers, crossing over to the other side, crosses to bear, signs of the cross, double crossings, things that cross your mind, crosswords, dotting your i's and crossing your t's, crossing your heart and hoping to die. If I had a nickel for every crossing in this book, I'd have enough to finally purchase that stuffed mongoose I've been pining for. Either way, the crossings are not to be taken lightly as to be witnessed in this exchange between Emmett and a group of Mexican bandits just south of the Sierra Madre, as they cross paths and the bandits take a shine to El Lobo Diablo Dachshund and wish to take him back to their hacienda as a gift for their many ungrateful, one-eyed children.
"Hola. Que es donde minero lobo tejas casita?"
"No," Emmett replied, standing his ground, El Lobo Diablo at his side. "I do not know where your mother's mustache is."
"Es una loba. Es una loba. Que paso con la Americano la perra como veras. No?"
"I'm sorry. I stand corrected. Your father's mustache. No, I do not know where your father's mustache has gone."
"Es minero con conchita dos lindo firmado pollo por favor?"
"The wolf and the chicken shall never mate," Emmett countered, reaching for his buck knife. The clouds scudded before the wan sun, its light a wash of sickly permanence drunk through the pores of the skin until all felt to wither and die inside, alluvial, muck-raked, predefined as if through the strange alchemy between the sun, sky and arid earth that rose to the feet like death's own hand, a shoe horn of cow's bone in its grip and a shoe that just would not fit the blistered sole at the end of your leg. How many more crossings before the rutted road carried too deep the passage and migration of souls until no load carried nor burden borne could be shorn like so many sheep flummoxed in the fields and bear up under the weight of parched mesa and a horizon obliterated against the last heat of the day, shimmering like bacon grease in a pan that has grown as cold as death's touch. The bandits turned, rash of buckles and buckle rash clanging and chafing against flesh and stirrup and then they rode, rode back into a darkness so dark it could be misconstrued as light if they didn't bump into things like cacti, water pails, stray llamas, discarded pianos, wandering Jews and the like.
Could this be the mustache Mr. McCarthy was alluding to in the above quoted passage. In 1832, ranch hand and moonlighting bandit, Sancho Perez, awoke to find his mustache stolen from his bedside table where he kept it in an olive jar while he slept. It had been his father's mustache and his father's father's mustache and before that his father's father's mother's mustache, handed down through the family generations and the tale was told all over Mexico how Sancho wandered the pampas, cavorted with peons and prostitutes and packed pinatas and mixed pina coladas to make ends meet on his journeys, but never found the mustache again. He died a brokenhearted man. Over a century later this mustache turned up on the statue of a Muffler Man statue outside a Muncie, Indiana franchise. Its resemblance to Sancho Perez's lost mustache is uncanny and the Muffler Man has become the centre of the annual Sancho Perez Mustache Pilgrimage where all true believers of the holy powers of the transmogrification of upper lip hair gather to pay honour to their patron saint of mustaches and mufflers.
 Although Emmett and Diablo neatly avoid this scrape with the bandits using trickery, tomfoolery (second cousin to Doubting Thomas and Peeping Tom's deadbeat dad, Lester Borenstein), plus rotten poultry gas, which they smartly emit once they realize the bandits are downwind of their intestinal evacuations, there are many more scrapes they endure including scraped knees, elbows, foreheads and testicles (the Wild West could be hard on a man's groin, let alone his mind) on their epic journey across the Great Divide and not-so-great St. Louis east-side. Ironically, that's where Emmett meets the love of his life, Toots Malone. If you thought this was a boy's-only adventure yarn, think twice, or three times if you're a little slow. Because Mr. McCarthy is no slouch in the love department and he brings the smooching aspect home with the sassy and saucy saloon singer, Toots Malone, whose breasts could suckle an entire nation without withering, drooping or running dry like the country's gold rush economy and whose language could make a sailor blush and miss the spittoon. The true question is, can she conquer not only Emmett's heart, but also of that of the devil dachshund devil-wolf of Amarillo, and she does that in spades. If she were holding a poker hand, the pit bosses would be crying. The three of them set off to conquer the west but as we know, a love triangle is a difficult thing. Maybe more difficult than quantum physics, but you'd have to ask Albert Einstein about that and he's dead. Suffice to say, when everything looks rosy, everything gets messy, about as messy as trying to gut a moose with just a Bowie knife and no garbage bags to drape over your body as a blood-spray poncho.
Could this image provide the hidden inspiration for Mr. McCarthy's character, Toots Malone. The photo shows Florence Villanchez, housewife and dachshund enthusiast, who lived two doors down from Mr. McCarthy during his Amarillo days. She was well-known for her abilities in taming the most feral of sausage dogs and their hybrid and sometimes downright demonic breeds, and many a scholar has argued she could be the missing puzzle piece in "The Crossing" dachshund connection mystery. That her dachshund-training protocol involved nudity was not lost on the good citizens of the community, especially those who shared a backyard fence with her or had a view from their kitchen window because she was adamant this type of training was only possible in an outdoor setting, and for that, many Amarillo residents thanked her.
All I can say is that prose this majestic and equally despairing, prose that pin-balls between hope and a homemade noose and three-legged stool from Gorton's Hardware, waiting to be hooked up to a ceiling fan in a rattan furnished condo in Cabo San Lucas with only the wallpaper print parrots to witness your demise, is prose that will make you forget to shave for a few days and maybe even make you forget you put a meat pie in the oven and so the next day when you open the oven door and see its dessicated remains you will be reminded of how brief life can be and the many thresholds you will cross over in the brevity of your days and you will think, bravo Mr. McCarthy, bravo, and then you will thank him, maybe even get down on your hands and knees if you haven't hung yourself first, and thank Cormac McCarthy for enriching your squalid life and enlightening your feeble mind and then you'll probably get up off your hands and knees because you're thanking him, not begging or grovelling so really, thirty seconds or so is enough time, but Mr. McCarthy may ask you to stay down on all fours because he needs a horsey ride and has so many distances to cross in his pursuit of the truth in the wild, wild west that is his mind and he needs a sturdy steed to carry him across the great plains of creativity and cerebral aneurysm-induced tumbleweeds and so with a gentle neigh and a whinny you're off into the great unknown, just another crossing in the cross-walk of life where you're bound to be hit by a car before you can cross the finish line.

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