09 May 2012

Presidential (S)elections

by Neil Schofield

I haven't been having a cold like Leigh, or trouble with my leg like Rob, but what I've been having is like a combination of the worst aspects of both. I've been having a presidential election. I say 'I', but I really mean 'they', because although I'm in France, I'm not altogether of it, if you catch my drift. I can vote in local and regional elections being a European, but for any Rosbif who tries to muscle in on the choosing of the Head Grenouille, the shrift he gets is decidedly on the short side.

It's been a bad-tempered campaign, often peevish and at times verging on the distinctly shirty.
So to get away from this parliament of crows and the not unfrenzied activity which has surrounded it, I decided to catch up with my reading. Our town library now boasts a vast(ish) English language section with a high proportion of crime/mystery novels. From Block,Connelly, Coben and Cornwell  all the way to Westlake. Wodehouse is also there to ease the fractious mind.

My selection this last month has largely consisted of books I should have read long ago, but have inexplicably failed to. So it's been Catch-Up time. But you can't ever really catch-up, can you? And my reading has been interfered with by the thought that people will say incredulously "You haven't read that? But everybody's read that. Years ago!"

Well, okay. We can't all be perfect and I don't get out much. But three of this month's books have made for a fine distraction from the worritsome Gallic punch-up. What I like in a book is  (of course) a good story well told, but I also love to learn about something new to me. And these three have all taught me something new, told me about something of which I was completely ignorant. Coincidentally, all three concern America, but I don't mind that.




The first is The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. This is a very good book indeed. I've now stopped classing D. Lehane as a great crime writer and started thinking of him as a great writer full stop. And what fascinated me was the back-drop of Boston in 1919. I had never heard of the Boston police strike and most of all, I had never heard of the Boston Molasses Disaster. If anyone had spoken to me about it before I came across the book, I would have assumed they were talking about a Monty Python sketch. But the horrid reality was anything but funny. And the fact that it has Babe Ruth as a sort of Greek Chorus turning up throughout the narrative is a clever added bonus.

My second selection is The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. I am always a little wary about detective novels written about actual historical figures, but this is an exception. I didn't know about Sigmund Freud's visit to New York in 1909, and his fractious relationship with Carl Jung, so here again I learned something new. The (fictional) murder plot which takes place during the visit  and with which Freud becomes involved is well constructed but again, it was the back-drop that entertained me the most. The New York of 1909, with its towering nineteen-floor (gasp) skyscrapers, the Manhatten Bridge as yet unbuilt, the social New York of the Four Hundred Families - all beautifully drawn.

Third and not least, I read this.

And it frightened the bejasus out of me.

After 'No Country For Old Men', I had to amend my List Of People To Be Really, Really Scared Of, to include Anton Chigurh, but nothing prepared me for this. Why on earth hadn't I read this before? It is one of the strangest, most terrible, most terrifying things I have ever read. I kept having to stop during one of McCarthy's long hair-raising paragraphs, to take a few deep breaths and tell myself it was only a book. But it isn't only a book. One review (the NYT, I think) called it a journey 'through a hell without purpose'. And that it is and then some. There is no salvation in this book, no redemption for anyone. The end is as terrible as the beginning. It is dark, bloody and pitiless.

And what I didn't know about was John Joel Glanton , his band of scalphunters and their horrid, bloody work in 1849. And worst of all, I didn't know about Glanton's appalling second-in-command, the dreadful Judge Holden. And now I know, I'm not sure I wasn't better off not.

What mesmerises is McCarthy's English which is like no English language anyone one has written or  read before. It isn't simply the repetitive use of 'and', nor the lack of quotes around the dialogue. It is the way he drifts into near-Biblical  or quasi-mediaeval mode, his use of the archaic word, the outmoded phrase when he is describing the indescriptible which raised the hair on my neck. I am going to have to read it again to make sure I had it right the first time. But not just yet. I have to read some P.G.Wodehouse to settle my nerves.

France has elected a new President.

And I have elected Judge Holden to head my List of People To Be Really Really Scared Of, which now reads:
1. Judge Holden
2. Anton Chigurh
3. Roy Batty
4 Keyser Sose

They just keep on coming.

7 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Neil,

Pity us we are in the middle of a presidential election that has six months more to go. A chronic illness, so to speak.

You might enjoy this song which is, in part, about the Molasses Disaster.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xawag_PYNGE

David Dean said...

Great post, Neil. I became a Cormac McCarthy fan after reading 'Suttree' a few years back. My son is a McCarthy devotee who hounds me to read the Master's every word. He thinks 'Blood Meridian' is one of the great American masterpieces. I have yet to summon the courage to read it.

Eve Fisher said...

Personally, I kind of feel towards Cormac McCarthy what Edmond Gosse said a hundred years ago about Thomas Hardy: “What has Providence done... that he should rise up in the arable land of [America] and shake his fist at his creator?" But then, my temperament is more like the old friend of Dr. Johnson who once told him that he had tried to be a philosopher “but cheerfulness kept breaking through.” At a certain point, all I can say is lighten up!
By the way, for election blues, I highly recommend reading a collection of Molly Ivins.

Fran Rizer said...

Neil,
I'll read some of what you mentioned, but no time soon. My mind is already discombobulated.
BTW, Rob, I enjoyed the song.

John Floyd said...

Neil, I loved this piece. I've read The Given Day and No Country for Old Men and enjoyed both, but have not yet read Blood Meridian OR The Interpretation of Murder. Both are now on my list.

By the way, I agree: Anton Chigurh surpasses even Hannibal Lecter in the scary-villain department, in both the movies and the books. And EVERYone's afraid of Keyser Sose.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Neil, I read your comments on the election to my hubby, who takes a great interest in global events, and as I expected, they drew several bellows of laughter. He especially liked the references to le Rosbif and the Head Grenouille. BTW, he thinks the Gallic punch-up is just beginning.

Anonymous said...

Great list and I learned a few things. Thank you!