Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy

If you want to be a writer, read the works of Cormac McCarthy. They are crisp and clean, with no extra words. As one of the review snippets on the back of the book said, “He writes prose as clean as a bullet cutting through the air . . .” 

As is true with all of his books, the story is of an actual journey, and of the things that happen along the way. The story takes place in the years just before and just after the beginning of World War II, and follows the adventures of 16 year old Billy Parham as he travels back and forth between his home in New Mexico, and various places in Mexico to accomplish various deeds. I don’t think it’s spoiling the plot to say that they end in calamity.

The writing is unbelievable. “The thin horned moon lay on its back in the west like a grail and the bright shape of Venus hung above it like a star falling into a boat.” Near the end of the book he describes an old crippled broken dog in such a way that you actually feel its pain. “[The dog] stood there inside the door with the rain falling in the weeds and gravel behind it and it was wet and wretched and so scarred and broken that it might have been patched up out of parts of dogs by demented vivisectionists.”

This is literature for a man. There is no romance, no sex. It is violent and bloody with suffering and pain for man and beast throughout. McCarthy follows rigidly the rule of never giving the protagonist what he wants. Billy finds himself in a world where there is plenty of good. Plenty of people help him along the way. But the myriad evil in the world is more powerful. The good can only huddle and quake in its shadow. In the end he is left with nothing. All is taken from him by evil men with vile and bloody ways. That is, the ending is not all sunshine and happiness. But is filled with philosophy and insight as to the nature of man and the hard and deadly world he has created for himself.

This is the second novel in “The Border Trilogy.” I have yet to read the others, but will. One of the best books I have read. The story is thoughtful and compelling. Read it. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Another Way to Improve your Writing: Kill the Cute

I have always considered myself a good writer. That is, I felt that I had a command of the language, a reasonable idea of how to use commas (although there is still a mysterious element to them), and a way with words, as they say. The way with words part is what I intend to talk about here.

In our studies to become writers, we are often told “kill your darlings.” This is great advice. Usually, the part of a story that you think is the best thing ever written is horrible, and ruins the story. Take it out. I have received other advice, as well. For example, “go on a which hunt.” Go through your work, take out all the “whichs” and replace them with “that.” Then go through and take out all the “thats.” I would like to add one more: Take out the cute.

As a novice writer who thought he had a way with words, I would often write something that I felt to be witty and humorous, demonstrating my clever use of words. I was wrong. This often manifested itself in the form of witty banter amongst the characters. The result was to turn a scene that I intended to be scary, into one that was funny or, more accurately, one that not scary or funny, but rather stupid. Consider the following:


(Rose’s husband has been kidnapped, and put into a tomb somewhere in Venice. Rose and their friend Mauro have determined that the tomb may be located under a church in the crypt. They set off to find him. Is this a time for humor? There are other obvious problems with the writing that I also correct in the revised version)

“Let’s go,” Mauro said, taking out his flashlight, and stepping off the bricks into water, and heading for the hidden places of the crypt.
Rose took out her flashlight, and they headed back into the heart of the crypt.
“Won’t the little man guarding the door wonder where we went?” she asked.
“No, it’s taken care of.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’s taken care of?’”
“I told him we wanted to go on an extended tour.”
“That’s code. We’ve known each other since we were boys. We used to bring girls back here to impress them, and such.”
“And such?”
“Yes, they were usually quite impressed when they left.”
“So he thinks–”
“You bastard.”
He grinned.
“I’m not going to kill you now,” she said, “I need you. But when we get out, you die.”
He laughed out loud.
“Fine, but keep it down,” he said. “We need to be quiet.”
They turned the corner and shined their lights off into the crypt. It was surprisingly vast, and clearly covered a span of territory greater than the footprint of the church. Walking slowly through water that was about six inches below their knees, they moved through the pitch dark of the crypt. The darkness seemed to devour the light from their flashlights. 
Shelves cut into stone and heaped with skulls and other bones lined the corridor, below which ran a row of sepulchers decorated with elaborate carvings and odd figures, such as lions with bat’s wings, screaming skulls, and creatures half man and half snake.


“Let’s go,” Mauro said, stepping into the water, shining his flashlight into the darkness, which seemed to devour the beam. 
Rose followed with her flashlight. They moved into the damp gloom of the crypt, sloshing slowly through ankle-deep water. Skulls  peered at them from shelves cut into the stone. Below these bones ran a row of sepulchers decorated with elaborate carvings of fantastic figures. Lions with bat’s wings, screaming skulls, and creatures half man and half snake.

Even if you simply take out the silly dialogue, the scene changes from one of comedy to one more serious and (hopefully) more frightening. Dress it up further, and you begin to get the feeling I was shooting for. I realized that the cute and witty banter ruined the feeling of dread I hoped to achieve. This passage was actually a darling, as well. Better that it’s gone. What do you think?