The Taste of Others, part 10: McCarthy, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.

26 Jan

In which I continue to explore and respond to one-star reviews on Amazon, and suffer the tyranny of other people’s tastes, so you don’t have to.

1.

I’m continuing with my one-star reviews reviews. I left the children’s books behind, and now I’m onto books that I love. I started with All the Pretty Horses, one of the finest novels written in the last 30 years. There were 28 one-star reviews. Ye gods.

First, some context.

McCarthy lived a nomadic life for thirty years, writing in stone huts and rotting cabins while living off of grants and foundations. He was an unknown writer well into the 1980s. His early novels are set in Tennessee, and they traffic in grotesques, peopled by drunks, murderers, rapists. The language is prolix, complex and reads like some black-hearted crime novelist, with a penchant for cruelty, writing in a half-Faulkner, half-mythic patois. Child of God, the best of the early novels, follows a murderous necrophiliac who drags his victims into limestone caves. Great writing, but dark, dark, dark.

Then he published Suttree. It’s a giant, staggering character study of a hard-living dude in Tennessee, and the whores, roughnecks, drunks and hardcases he spends time with. It’s a very fine novel, with dense, if extremely beautiful, language.

He left Tennessee for Texas. Here he wandered through the sage, the creosote, the cactus and the bramble, researching his violent parable based on a true life scalp-hunting expedition into Mexico. The characters are misfits, killers, thugs and thieves. The language is rhapsodic, stunningly violent. The body count is immense. He titled the novel Blood Meridian. I try to read it once a year. It isn’t for everyone, but goddamn, it’s amazing. It’s reads like some lost chapter of the Iliad. The one where they kill an entire tribe with stones and bullets and knives.

He stayed with Texas, wrote his border trilogy. They follow two cowboys through three decades on the border. All the Pretty Horses is the best of the bunch—the writing is absolutely electric—but The Crossing is very fine, too and Cities on the Plain broke my goddamn heart. They’re the best cowboy stories you’ll ever read[1]. Horses won him notoriety and cash; he no longer had to live like some homeless hermit. He was 59 years old.

He moved on to a crime novel, No Country for Old Men. It’s very good. And then he published The Road, in some sense his bleakest and vilest book, a man and his young son wandering through a dying world, populated by cannibals and murderers and dead animals and unspeakable cruelty. Somehow this one resonated, became a bestseller.

He’s one of my favorite authors, and one of the most important American authors of the last fifty years. He eschews most punctuation and he doesn’t translate any Spanish into English. He isn’t difficult to read so much as idiosyncratic.

2.

Now for an exercise in futility. I’m going to respond to the one-star reviews. Hold on to your butts.

The criticism seems to focus overwhelmingly on the preponderance of “ands.” Forget that this is a style that often works; I challenge anyone to read two sentences, one chockfull of commas and the other instead with its clauses delineating through various conjunctions, and tell me that the comma-infested sentence is better. It isn’t. The other major beef is McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks. Other writers who do this often bother me, but with McCarthy it’s always clear who’s speaking and when it’s dialogue.

One reviewer said that McCarthy had slapped off a first-draft. This is the height of ignorance. McCarthy is a very careful writer, famously so. He spent nine years writing and rewriting Suttree. Nine years! Ditto for Blood Meridian. He writes and rewrites and is a very careful editor of his own work. Why would anyone accuse him of being lazy?

Here’s one reviewer: “This guy is no Hemingway. He just tries too hard to be the great Hemingway and he uses a lot more ‘and’ than he should. Anyone who reads and loves this guy, I’m sorry to say, is just not willing to admit that, deep down, this guy is untalented, unoriginal, and a hack of Hemingway at best.”

This makes my blood boil. Others say that McCarthy is trying to be like Faulkner, trying and failing.

McCarthy isn’t a Hemingway or Faulkner knockoff; he’s a better writer than both. He’s more consistent—he’s not without his weaker books; The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark aren’t the greatest reads in the history of fiction—but he marries Faulkner’s complex and often beautiful diction with Hemingway’s lucidity and sparse style. McCarthy bridges the two major modernist American writers. Sometimes he’s the worst of both writers, but more often than not he’s the apotheosis of the two stylistic extremes. Hemingway wrote some weak books, and so did Faulkner. A weak book does not a bad author make.

The snarky tone is especially strange for a writer like McCarthy, who doesn’t employ irony or sarcasm, instead operating (mostly) on a mythic plain. One reviewer says that, “most fifth graders can write better, more enthralling narratives.” God, to quote Woody Allen, what I wouldn’t give for a sock full of horse manure.

He’s influential. Other writers steal from his style, to varying success. William Gay’s Provinces of Night, inspired by McCarthy, is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last nine months. (Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead, on the other hand, is a miserly McCarthy knock-off.)

He isn’t for everyone. Neither is Don DeLillo, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Cather, Wolfe, or for that matter Chekhov, Dostoevsky or Flaubert. He belongs in this rarified company. He belongs with Updike and Dos Passos and Roth and Proulx.

One of the great authors, described by one reviewer as, "No Hemingway."

One of the great authors, described by one reviewer as, “No Hemingway.”

He cannot be dismissed. Not easily.

And this is the lesson these one-star reviews teach us. You cannot bloviate and opine with any type of dignity if you ignore balance, context and history. You can dislike or even be offended by something but acknowledge its skill.

You can be offended by a great writer and find the point of their work execrable. (Writers who employ misanthropy, such as Celine or Hamsen or Dennis Cooper, for example, or writers exploring the intersection of sex and cruelty, like Nin or DeSade or Bataille.) But there’s more to literature than what you like. I have no real enthusiasm for Philip Roth—although I think So I Married a Communist is a very fine novel—but he’s a very fine novelist who has had an unprecedented career. His books leave me cold, but that doesn’t mean they are bad.

2.

I didn’t stop with McCarthy. Hemingway and Fitzgerald don’t escape unscathed either. One reviewer said he wished Hemingway had killed himself thirty years earlier, so that the Nick Adams stories hadn’t been published[2]. Another reviewer called The Sun Also Rises “boring, overrated, impoverished!”

Hemingway is misunderstood; his life has overshadowed his work. He doesn’t hate women, far from it, and his stories aren’t macho or violent. There’s plenty of drinking going on, and there are a few stories about outlaws and criminals. But many of his stories deal with hurting people coping with their emotional baggage. He loved hunting and there are hunters, he loved fishing and there are fishermen, but the bulk of his stories are about surviving, even transcending, our unseen psychic wounds.

Papa Hemingway, at the mercy of teenage critics in the digital age, condemned as both violent and boring.

Papa Hemingway, at the mercy of teenage critics in the digital age, condemned as both violent and boring.

I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway—although I absolutely love love love some of his short stories and I think the Nick Adams collection is superb, essential reading. But Hemingway is a meteor on the literary landscape, a titan who changed fiction forever. His approach, to pare down the bullshit and bore into the characters by what they do and say, as opposed to the trend of psychological novels a la Henry James that meander through a character’s thoughts and feelings, is still the dominant strand of American fiction. His inimitable prose style has been copied, parodied, and worshiped for eighty years. A Moveable Feast, his charming anecdotes of being poor in Paris during the 1920s, is one of the best books on American expatriates.

He can’t be dismissed either.

3.

Fitzgerald is another matter, a more problematic presence in American letters. It’s not that he lacked talent. He just misused, misrepresented and abused it. He floated through a life of privilege with the piercing knowledge that he could never live someone else’s life.

The Great Gatsby is called “mediocre prose”; “the characters are not interesting” (this same reviewer gave Tarzan, a bloated piece of dated, purple prose, five stars); “shallow”; “agonizingly elementary”; “an excellent substitute for valium” (this is kind of funny, actually); “a really bad book”; “sentences are basic and blunt”; “painful to read”; “you find yourself in a dreary funk”; “so vanilla”; and “swill.”

I think Fitzgerald is overrated, especially near the end of his career. (The Pat Hobby stories are amusing but crepe thin.) He drank too much, and the drink didn’t provide grist to his writing but rather turned him moribund and self-pitying. Some of his stories are dynamite, others are silly contrivances that say little and go nowhere. He’s light and airy, not a very careful writer and he hasn’t dated well. He lacks the sophistication and subtlety of some of his peers. And because everyone reads him in high school he has had an out-sized impact on our culture, inflicting his stormy self-entitlement to every new generation.

The author of Gatbsy, before booze and self-pity destroyed him.

The author of Gatbsy, before booze and self-pity destroyed him.

But.

He is important, too, and cannot be judged without some context.

Gatsby is an enormously important novel, lean and taut at 185 pages. It’s arguably one of the first (or early) “American” novels in its themes and approach. The characters are haunted, lonely, and rich. The pursuit of wealth and status has left them hollowed out and unhappy. They are the embodiment of Tocqueville’s insightful comment on Americans, that the freer we are, the more aware we are of the inequality that separates us. So that the more freedom we have, the unhappier we become. And if Gatsby has at its core a bright shining lie—of course it’s better to have money than not to have it—it also has the hard wisdom best captured by Biggie Smalls: mo money, mo problems.

Roaming through the labyrinthine corridors of Internet opinion is enervating, frustrating, addicting. The endeavor is such a collapsing cascade of, well, nothingness. It’s a strange, self-perpetuating activity. I want to stop, but then I think of another great book to see what buffoons hate it and why.

Sadly, I’m sure they’ll be more to come.


[1] Excepting perhaps Butcher’s Crossing, by John Williams. And Warlock by Oakley Hall is good, too. Little Big Man belongs on the list.

[2] It’s hard to believe the vileness of these anonymous reviews. The vicious evil in this sentiment exposes an odd urge in certain types of readers to attack the author of a work they dislike.

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