Saturday, May 25, 2013

The violent wisdom of Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy

Reviewer: Trudi
Rating: 5 of 5 blood-soaked stars

This book broke my brain. On the surface, McCarthy is weaving a modern day western aptly soaked in blood and ruthlessness, where the line between hero and villain is sharply drawn. On that same surface, what we have is a cast of archetypes – the weary sheriff who has stayed too long and seen too much; the everyday man living right until he is undone by greed; the young and dutiful wife committed to “standing by her man” no matter what; and finally, the relentless villain who will cut down any and all who cross his path.

That’s on the surface.

Even if you only read the book for that tale it is an awesome and rewarding one – tense, violent, dark, oppressive. Who will live? Who will die?

But as you read, your brain is going to want to do a lot more thinking about the story; in fact, the story will demand it. Those archetypical characters will demand it too. Like a hologram, just shift them a few degrees to the right or left and they become much more nuanced than you first thought, showing other angles and deeper reflections.

Who is Anton Chigurh? A blood-thirsty villain? an amoral badass? a demented sociopath? ... yes, yes and yes. But he also walks through the story doling out justice Old Testament style. There is that Biblical quality to him. You’ve committed your sins, and now the reaper has come a-calling. Not for vengeance, not for his pleasure, but for justice. Chigurh does not like loose ends. There is an order, a natural balance to things that must be maintained. The moment Llewelyn takes the money his fate is sealed. There is nothing from that moment on that will ever deter Chigurh from collecting on Llewelyn’s death and restoring "order".

Chigurh's character made me think about free will versus destiny. What are the choices any man or woman makes to get them to the exact moment he or she is now? Is it all random or has it been predestined all along? I’m not sure what Chigurh believes. The coin he carries speaks of a belief in chance (aka destiny). Chigurh respects the coin. Heads you live, tails you die. Llewelyn acts on free will, but once the act has taken place he seems destined to meet his final end, at least Chirgurh seems to think so. If Chigurh is the consequence or punishment doled out for a misdeed, does this make him Llewelyn's destiny?[Certainly if Carla Jean had called the coin correctly, Chigurh would have let her live. He seems to deeply respect the other “laws” at work around him. The moment that Llewellyn takes the money, his fate is sealed. There is nothing from that moment on that will ever deter Chigurh from collecting on Llewellyn’s death. That debt must be paid. It is non-negotiable. What is negotiable is Carla Jean’s life: if Llewellyn had returned the money as requested, Chigurh would have let her live. (hide spoiler)]

Yet, there is a randomness to Chigurh's killing philosophy in the sense that like the proverbial Hand of Death, there will always be innocent bystanders. “Innocence” does not compute, nor is it ever a factor. Bad things happen to good people all the time, even when you’re minding your own business you can be violently drawn into someone else’s. Is what we call random chance just destiny in disguise? There is nothing about being collateral damage that smacks of free will to me. 

I love Carla Jean. She is a heap of contradictions: vulnerable but strong, na├»ve but wise. She is loyal and loving and though she finds herself in a heap of trouble, does not buckle under the pressure. [Her confrontation with Chigurh is my favorite scene of the entire novel. I find it heartbreaking. This is an innocent facing death. It’s not fair, it shouldn’t be happening, but it is. Chigurh offers her a faint hope with the coin toss, but even that does not pan out for her. What breaks my heart the most about her death is that she went out of this life believing Llewellyn did not love her, that he had betrayed herLlewellyn is a good man. I don’t believe it's naked greed that makes him run off with the money, but a hope for a better life, an easier life for him and Carla Jean. I think he is a man filled with love and a lot of the choices he makes in this novel he makes thinking only of his young wife and the life he wants to give her.

This novel made my head explode with questions. McCarthy gives the reader a lot to ponder and chew on, but there are just as many places where McCarthy is mute and leaves it up to the reader to do all the work and come up with some answers, and, as in life, answers are not easy to come by.

The Blue Blazes

Chuck Wendig's The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes
Chuck Wendig
Angry Robot Books
Available May 28th, 2013

Have you ever walked into a party and seen someone just command everyone’s attention? Maybe they’re telling a joke, a captivating story or performing some ridiculous feat, you’re not sure. You lean over and ask someone what’s going on. They either shush you or they calmly say, “Oh, that’s just <insert name here>, he’s/she’s awesome.”  That’s Chuck Wendig.

Chuck is that guy that everyone is talking about that somehow you don’t know. He’s been building his reputation over the years with some critically acclaimed work but unfortunately, I’ve had my blinders on preferring to narrow my reading material to a select few genres and authors. It wasn’t until this year that I’ve really started to broaden my horizons and Chuck Wendig is one of my latest discoveries.

I first stumbled across Chuck when I was prepping for an interview with Adam Christopher. I wanted to avoid asking Adam anything that he’d already been asked a thousand times (a difficult task) when I came across an interview he did with the website, Terrible Minds. Terrible Minds is a blog created by Mr. Wendig where he interviews other authors and muses about anything that crosses his mind. Not only did I become a fan, I saw that he was also an author. Not only is he an author but an author that had a book scheduled to be released by Angry Robot – a publisher that I’ve become enthralled with over the past few months. When I saw that the ARC (advanced reader copy) became available, I snagged it as quickly as possible.

The Blue Blazes is an urban fantasy tale that mixes the criminal underworld with the spiritual underworld. When combined, it produces a hard hitting and brutal exercise in awesome. Mookie Pearl works for The Organization, a gang that holds great power and influence over the majority of the organized crime within New York City. When its leader becomes stricken with terminal cancer, Mookie is sent to retrieve a cure that may or may not even exist. The prospect of traveling within the local underworld is not something Mookie is looking forward to but seeing as his loyalty is unwavering, he sees no other option.

In mixing the surface dwellers with the underground, the underground have an advantage in assuming a physical appearance akin to ours. The only way to see them for who they really are is to smear a clay like substance often dubbed, “Peacock Powder” on each of their temples (think Roddy Piper’s shades in They Live!). As the novel progresses, Mookie hears of another drug similar to the blue called “The Red”, in which an acquaintance explains:

“..that shit’s like bath salts had a baby with steroids or something, man. Makes you go crazy. He went nuts. Tore up his mother’s house. Ate her dog.”

The underworld is filled with these select pigmentations that can alter one’s perception, strength or even cure diseases. The one Mookie is after is labeled Death’s Head, or sometimes known as “The Purple”. Long considered to be an urban legend, Death’s Head is believed to cure the incurable and bring those back to life that had passed on.

Not only does Mookie have a hell of a challenge ahead of him (mind the pun) but he also has to deal with his rebellious daughter, Nora. Nora was more than a little tired of living in her father’s shadow and playing a background character to his duties with the mob. So she chose to hit him where it hurts, his father figure boss. Despite his frustration following her actions, his love for her never falls to the wayside. Given his career choice, what option did he have? In order to function like the hard-ass that he was, he had to push his family to the back burner.

“Mookie’s not a man given over to much guilt. In his line of work, guilt is a boat anchor around the ankle, a too-full colostomy bag hanging from the hip. It’s a burden. A does-nothing-for-you-but-slow-your-ass-down burden. Guilt will make you hesitate. Shame makes you weak. And Mookie’s tough. Tough like an anvil.”

Chuck’s got some excellent writing chops. Like the above, there are more than a few lines that had me laughing out loud. Aside from both the action and intensity that Chuck writes with, he isn't above throwing in some abrasive comedy to boot.

“He wants to know who did this. So he can break a baseball bat off in their bowels”

“..And it’s then and there that Mookie decides he’s going to steal a fucking city bus and hit the Holland Tunnel and find this guy’s house and drive the bus over his head”.

I was seriously hooked on this. The Blue Blazes feels like it should exist in the same realm as Frank Miller’s Sin City, both have lovable oafs in Mookie Pearl and Marv respectively and a similar level of extremely stylized violence. Wendig crafted a world here that could produce an endless number of stories. Possibly a prequel or spin-off in regards to the brief introductions for each chapter from an early underworld explorer attempting to map out its environment.

It should be worth noting that Angry Robot is kicking out some fantastic cover art and The Blue Blazes is no exception. Working with Joey Hi-Fi, the same artist as his previous novels, Chuck has some great eye-grabbing artwork to grace the cover. The smaller shot I have at the top of this review seriously does not do it justice. Head over to Terrible Minds to see a hi-res shot.

I’ll be checking out some more Wendig going forward. His Miriam Black series has received a great deal of praise and I doubt it’ll be long before I catch up.