THE BLOG
11/28/2007 12:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Odd Couple of Savages: Cormac McCarthy and Dan Rhodes

I've just read, back to back, an odd couple of two brilliantly savage novels--savage in their different ways: Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and Dan Rhodes' Timoleon Vieta Come Home .

Both books commit subversive violence to their genres' expectations.

I thought I'd read NCFOM before seeing the Coen Brothers movie (it still awaits). This was my first trip to McCarthy world, and it is one bloody hellacious spot, isn't it? I am a tremendous fan of gangster novels and crime action thrillers. NCFOM seems to unspool that way--and then it launches off elsewhere in the final stretch. Not altogether successfully--our genre Pavlovism is so strong--but certainly courageously.

The gentle reader meets three protagonists in this gun-crazy saga of a busted drug deal on the Tex-Mex border: Moss, the youngish guy on the lam with the $$; Bell, the crusty (at times oh-too crusty-sentimental) veteran sheriff; and Wells, the wittily inclined hitman brought into the handle the source of the most extreme hellfire malevolence, Chigurh the psychopath. Face to face showdowns are how you expect a violent crime thriller to finally resolve--but here it just "up and don't," as one of McCarthy's deep-Texans might say.

Or wouldn't say: every hard-bitten soul in this book speaks with so much snappier down-home pithy spice, it would get that grade-A Texas hambone Dan Rather up on his cowboy-booted tippytoes trying to keep up. (Of course the guy who gave the broadcast world "This race is shakier than cafeteria Jello" can stay with the best of any homespun Horaces, at that).

NCFOM becomes one strangely shaped book. It's as if the old-fashioned conventions of the genre of violence--that blood-soaked but ordered world--can't cope with the story here, and are overwhelmed by the scale and nature of the evil rising. The book's genre-violations structurally express its dire theme: the whirlwind of narcotics and Mammon. This is no country for old narrative rules.

Film Echoes

Films reverberate for me among McCarthy gunshot pages here. John Boorman's epochal 1967 Point Blank, for instance, where Lee Marvin possesses the inhuman relentlessness of Chigurh. Some specific scene details echo, book and film, such as barging up an office tower to confront a shocked behind-the-scenes fat cat. "You are such an angry man!" Carroll O'Connor squawks to marauding Lee, who just wants his money back, plus interest compounded in gory vengeance (natch).

Point Blank is based on Donald Westlake's The Hunter, first book in the series featuring the tough-as-nails pro criminal known simply as Parker. Westlake usually writes amusing criminal capers (The Hot Rock). But as Richard Stark (what a pseudonym), he goes lean and he goes mean. The best of the Parker books are no-nonsense wonders of stripped-down prose and lethal action.

In NCFOM's border-town shoot-em-ups, another movie that vibes is Peckinpaugh's 1972 The Getaway, based on Jim Thompson's book, of course, with Steve McQueen and his riot gun booming and blasting an El Paso hotel to holy smithereens. Gun-shop clerk to Steve, who's hurriedly loading up on "double-ought" buckshot (pellet size a third of an inch): "What're you fixing to do, blow down a wall?" Steve to clerk, leveling a .45 handgun at his head: "Know what this is?" Clerk: "(gulp) Yes, I do."

Of course, Steve gets Ali McGraw at the end. NCFOM's ultimate trophy gal is an older married lady who quotes from the Book of Revelations and cooks well. As I say, NCFOM takes to violating genre.

Third film echo, for me, was of Memories of Murder, the 2003 crime thriller directed by Joon-Ho Bong, who went on to make the marvelous sci-fi horror spectacular, The Host. MoM also concerns a lawman's ultimate failure, of evil loose and still at large, though on an intimate scale compared to NCFOM's societal apocalypse. "If you try to read the tea leaves before the cup is done, you can get yourself burned," said Dan Rather in another context. Some lawmen calculate properly, but still get burned.

Regarding the Coen Brothers version, I can only say that Javier Bardem in a weird haircut as crazed Chigurh, and Tommy Lee Jones as the old boy sheriff sound perfect to me.

Like Lassie, Only Meaner

Now Timoleon Vieta Come Home: it cooks up an altogether different stew of malevolence. A whole different pot of beans, you might say (I hope you don't). It already has a movie presence, being visible on a shelf in a scene in Knocked Up. Its story plays a riff on the heart tug of Lassie Come Home. Set in Italy, mainly the Tuscan countryside, it revolves around a pretty-eyed mutt called Timoleon Vieta and his loving but feckless owner, an elderly gay English songwriter named Cockcroft. It's about love, loneliness and comfort--and the crookedness of paths.

Deftly the story evolves into what seems a loopy fable with bittersweet tones. It's structure is novel, working up a button-pushing narrative constructed from smaller stories intersecting with the through story: as if the little brief peeks-into-other-lives that occurred during the headlong rush of Run Lola Run were expanded into, as I say, bittersweet little fables. And then this light & tart fabulousness wrings its genre by the neck to end the book--an ending so wounding and shocking, it's practically traumatic. Rhodes fucks with the reader and his expectations and high hopes and heart. Hats off to him.

Yes, an altogether distinctive and memorable book, told with the lightest of sure touches. I'll put in a little disclaimer: Dan Rhodes and I know each other through correspondence, being both writers of short fiction (his first book was a book of shorties about love, Anthropology). He's on Granta's best young English novelists' list, and has garnered some exceptional press. I'd say he's worth it in spades. I'm eager read his brand new one, Gold. About a young lesbian, I understand.

McCarthy's blood fest, I note, also involves dogs, albeit in passing--but to the point. This canine lies dead, amid the bullet-riddled corpses at the busted desert drug deal that opens NCFOM. Sheriff Bell: Can you tell me what they wanted with a dog out here? Deputy: I got no idea.

Yeah, no country for old dogs either.

Appreciations to Uber.com, where this piece appeared on my blog, Brain Flakes