I recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, and it had me thinking about the brutality I wrote of in my post last Friday. Some of the characters in this novel are also brutal, as the story depicts the earth after some cataclysmic event has ravaged the world, with ash ever-present and the sun hidden behind a gray sky. McCarthy doesn’t offer details of what kind of event brought this on, instead showing us the consequences in describing a harsh, burnt, gray world in which a small number of people are desperate to find food and stay warm. In this brutal story, I was moved by the man and his son’s journey on the road, their bond and determination to survive.
Last week, I said that Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine bowled me over, and The Road did the same—but in a much different way. Bradbury’s lush poetry was far different than McCarthy’s spare, Hemingwayesque prose that slowly describes the action, then drops in a word here and there that is so precise and unexpected, it startles you. The style of writing matches the landscape, and McCarthy paints a bleak picture efficiently and effectively. There’s not a great deal of dialogue, and maybe the most said word between the man and son is “okay.” Still, there are small bright moments that bring a break from the bleakness: finding a Coke, an underground bunker of food, and a grounded boat allow hope for the man and his son, and at the same time such discoveries contrast with how screwed-up the world has become.
Through all the bleakness of the book, the last paragraph slammed into my eyes with force, it floored me. It treated me like The Hulk treated Loki in The Avengers, pummeling the god of mischief on the wall and floor. Don’t worry, this exerpt doesn’t spoil the book’s narrative:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
It’s unclear who says this passage. Could be McCarthy himself speaking to you directly, instead of a character in the book. I’m amazed at the skill of a writer who can pack a great deal of wonder in a paragraph, one that sticks with you after the back cover has closed. Valuable are the stories that stay with you, become part of your memory, cause you to revisit them either purposefully when you see the cover or hear the title spoken—or in unexpected ways when some detail of your day brings it back with that fondness you felt when you read it.
As I’m coming back to writing fiction after many years away, it’s these types of books—Dandelion Wine and The Road—that inspire me. Bradbury crafted a story of summertime in a small town with floral, mystical poetry that feels like settling onto soft grass in warm sunshine. McCarthy did the job by carving down the text to the bare bones (Will Strunk chanting: “Omit needless words!”), giving you just enough to show the scene and allow you to use your imagination to fill in more.