Lovers — Nancy Spero

Lovers, 1962 by Nancy Spero (1926-2009)

No Sunday School — Eric Fischl

No Sunday School, 2021 by Eric Fischl (b. 1948)

The Trees have Ears and the Field has Eyes — Hieronymus Bosch

The Trees have Ears and the Field has Eyes, c. 1500 by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516)

Riff on (re-)reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

  1. Yesterday afternoon, I finished rereading Cormac McCarthy’s 1994 novel The Crossing.
  2. I used the word rereading above, although this felt like a first read—fresh, raw, often far more painful than I would have thought.
  3. The Crossing is a coming-of-age novel, the story of New Mexican Billy Parham whose life is wracked with adventure and beauty and pain.
  4. I probably read The Crossing for the first time some time around 2009 or 2010, when I was consuming all of McCarthy like a disgusting tick chasing a high from sucking down his prose. My recollection of that period is loving most of everything, but not really loving the so-called Border Trilogy.
  5. Maybe then, a younger, angrier man, I thought The Border Trilogy was too flowery, or too sentimental, or downright hokey at times.
  6. I reread All the Pretty Horses late last year as a chaser to The Passenger.
  7. All the Pretty Horses was much, much better than I had remembered it being, but it is not nearly as strong as The Crossing.
  8. Both All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing seem to revision elements of their antecedent, McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian.
  9. Namely, these first two books of The Border Trilogy seem to reimagine the erstwhile viewpoint character of Blood Meridian, the kid, first in John Grady Cole and then in Billy Parham.
  10. Like the kid (or The Kid), these orphaned/self-orphaned protagonists seem to at times inhabit a kind of superhuman ability to fight, to wrangle, to survive.
  11. (The boy in The Road might turn into one of these young men.)
  12. What had most stuck with me in my first reading of The Crossing was its initial episode, wherein Billy saves a pregnant she-wolf from a trap, helps nurse her back to health, and then elects to take her back “home” to the mountains of Northwest Mexico.
  13. In fact, I remembered the entirety of The Crossing as this initial episode with the wolf.
  14. This episode is, however, just one episode—a heavy quarter of the book.
  15. In my memory of the novel, other plots, like the adventures of Billy and his brother Boyd, are spiked into the devastating ballast of the she-wolf section.
  16. Somehow more of a superhero than Billy, Boyd is—a folk hero mythologized in corridos and other legends.
  17. But like I said, the she-wolf narrative is only part of the book (and a great part at that—the section could stand alone as the perfect introduction to McCarthy).
  18. The Crossing is far baggier than I had recalled. Unlike All the Pretty Horses, which is somewhat straightforward, McCarthy will turn over dozens of pages at a time to the denizens of the road Billy encounters.
  19. The gypsy commander, late in the novel, whose crew hauls a dead airplane from the jungle.
  20. The ex-priest who languishes in the ruins of a church, concocting a personal theodicy to no avail.
  21. The revolutionary whose eyeballs are sucked from their sockets by a German sadist.
  22. The tale of the revolutionary whose eyeballs are sucked from their sockets by a German sadist, whose kind wife offers Billy a meal of hard-boiled eggs before the tale unfolds, is one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read.
  23. More hardcore than anything in Blood Meridian.
  24. Or The Road.
  25. The initial gruesome passage: “He was a very large man with enormous hands and he reached and seized the young captive’s head in both these hands and bent as if to kiss him. But it was no kiss. He seized him by the face and it may well have looked to others that he bent to kiss him on each cheek perhaps in the military manner of the French but what he did instead with a great caving of his cheeks was to suck each in turn the man’s eyes from his head and spit them out again and leave them dangling by their cords wet and strange and wobbling on his cheeks.”
  26. —and the kicker—
  27. “They tried to put his eyes back into their sockets with a spoon but none could manage it and the eyes dried on his cheeks like grapes and the world grew dim and colorless and then it vanished forever.”
  28. Sorry!
  29. The Crossing is full of evil gross awful moments like this.
  30. The bandito who stabs the horse Niño.
  31. And scatters a dead brother’s bones.
  32. The cadre of zoosadists who run a dogfighting ring.
  33. The would-be rapist road agents (brave Boyd and Billy prevail).
  34. But The Crossing is full of beauty–
  35. –as when McCarthy’s prose-camera hovers around the she-wolf–
  36. –or gets into the minutiae of storytelling itself–
  37. (The Crossing seems to me the most direct example of McCarthy’s postmodernism.)
  38. –or another entry in McCarthy’s reckoning with heterodox witnessing
  39. –a lot of beauty here, beauty that doesn’t gloss over the ugliness, but reverberates all the stronger for it.
  40. A simile: “Downriver the nacre bowl of the moon sat swaged into the reefs of cloud like a candled skull.”
  41. Or: “The river where it lay behind the trees looked like poured metal.”
  42. (These similes are from late late late in the novel; I didn’t dogear the pages of the first-edition of the novel I found a few years ago, but I should’ve.)
  43. But more than these moments of reflection and storytelling, these metaphors and similes, The Crossing is about hospitality.
  44. For all the evils that befall Billy and brother Boyd, there seem to be tenfold blessings.
  45. Like Homer’s tale of an unhoused wanderer, The Crossing might be understood as a series of hostings.
  46. Again and again, strangers take Billy in—feed him, give him respite, clothe him.
  47. Care for his brother, shot through the chest.
  48. Share what they have, even if what they have is just words, stories.
  49. But more than anything else, a human concern.
  50. Fifty seems like enough (too many) points in a riff, so—

The Crossing is one of McCarthy’s best novels, up there with Suttree and Blood Meridian, and possibly The Passenger. It might seem baggy, but its fatty prose is generous. I’m amazed that it did not have as much of an impact on me a decade and a half ago as it did in the first month of 2023, but I’m glad I went back to it and met its myriad messages when I needed them.

Very highly recommended. If you’re interested in McCarthy but don’t know where to start, The Crossing might be a great place.

Posted in Art

The Inheritors — Salman Toor

The Inheritors, 2022 by Salman Toor (b. 1983)

Hare — Elisabeth Frink

Hare, 1967 by Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993)

Suma — Cy Twombly

Suma, 1982 by Cy Twombly (1928-2011)

Helen at the Scaean Gate — Gustave Moreau

Helen at the Scaean Gate, c. 1880s by Gustave Moreau (1826–1898)

The Expulsion from Paradise — Paco Pomet

The Expulsion from Paradise, 2017 by Paco Pomet (b. 1970)


Read Vladimir Sorokin’s beautiful, abject, horrifying story “Nastya”

You can read the full text of  Vladimir Sorokin’s beautiful, abject, horrifying very long short story “Nastya” at The Baffler. 

The novella-length piece swirls between fairy tale magic and Sadean cruelty. It is probably best if you consume “Nastya” on an empty stomach—like his novel Their Four Hearts, “Nastya” is reminiscent of Pasolini’s horrifying masterpiece Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. And like Their Four Hearts, this story is translated by Max Lawton, who vividly conveys the dream-nightmare-reality energy of Sorokin’s prose.

“Nastya” is from the collection Red Pyramid, which will publish in Lawton’s English-language translation early next year. (You can read the title story here.)

Here are the opening paragraphs of “Nastya”

A GRAYISH-BLUE LULL BEFORE DAWN, a slow boat on the heavy mirror of Denezh Lake, emerald caverns in the juniper bushes creeping menacingly toward the white wash of the alpine waters.

Nastya turned the brass knob of the door to the balcony and pushed it open. The thick, reeded glass swam to the right, splintering the landscape with its parallel flutes and mercilessly dividing the little boat into twelve pieces. A damp avalanche of morning air flowed through the open door, embraced her, and shamelessly flew up into her nightgown.

Nastya inhaled greedily through her nose and walked out onto the balcony.

Her warm feet recognized the cool wood, and its boards creaked gratefully. Nastya lay her hands upon the peeling paint of the railing, tears came to her eyes as she took in the motionless world: the left and right wings of the manor, the garden’s milky green, the severity of the linden grove, the sugar-cube church on the hill, the willow branches lying on the ground, the stacks of mown grass.

Nastya rolled her wide, thin shoulders, let down her hair, and stretched out with a moan, listening to her vertebrae crack as her body woke up.

And here is a sentence from later in the story that made me laugh out loud:

“Don’t dare overcook my daughter!”

Great fucked up stuff.

The Cage — Lawrence Daws

The Cage, 1972 by Lawrence Daws (b. 1927)

Farm — Chris Orr

Farm, 1975 by Chris Orr (b. 1943)

Farce, then tragedy | A few thoughts on Osvaldo Soriano’s novel A Funny Dirty Little War

I had never heard of the Argentinian author Osvaldo Soriano, but I plucked his novel A Funny Dirty Little War from the bookstore shelf because of its title. The goofy, menacingly violent cover, featuring an illustration by Oscar Zarate, intrigued me, and the Italo Calvino blurb on the back sold me on the book before I’d even opened it.

Calvino’s blurb offers a succinct summary of the novel:

A Funny Dirty Little War tells the story of a political confrontation in a small village in Argentina. Obscure differences between Peronist supporters and leaders escalate in a crescendo of violence to the final massacre.

Those “obscure differences” first evince as absurd, petty eruptions between the various characters. “You’ve got infiltrators,” the novel opens, and from there accusations accumulate and intensify.

That first accuser is the Inspector, who tells Ignacio, the city’s Council Leader, to fire a mild mannered clerk for his Marxist sympathies. Ignacio refuses, and the early part of the novel casts his as the closest thing to the protagonist. To be clear though, Soriano’s journalistic style recalls Hemingway’s brevity. His camera rarely dips into the interior lives of his characters; most of the action is conveyed in short, punchy sentences and often-terse, often-humorous dialogue. As Calvino observes, the “characters, who with each chapter evolve from the comic and grotesque to the tragic, are observed by the author with a cool, dispassionate gaze.”

The initial grotesquerie lends the novel a farcical air at the outset. Ignacio quickly deputizes an ad hoc militia to square off against the Inspector and his goon squad, and the atmosphere is one of buffoonish amateurism, best encapsulated in the drunken agricultural pilot who takes to the sky to spray DDT on his adversaries. As the violence escalates, we get farther from any ideological differences. Both sides claim to be true Peronists, yet there’s no real politics here beyond grievances exploding into vengeance.

That vengeance and violence overtakes the farcical absurdity of the novel’s first half, sweeping into brusque tragedy. “[In} the end we are left with a feeling of bitter pity,” Calvino writes, and I agree. There is a punchline at the end of the novel, but that punchline isn’t the novel’s cumulative, explosive slaughter—an explosion, an abject corpse laid out on a toilet.

Nick Caistor’s translation telegraphs Soriano’s journalistic, clipped style. At times, I wished that the dialogue might be rougher. While the men do curse at each other, there’s a veneer of gentility that at times seems out of place (at times I found myself substituting words or phrases I thought one of Bolaño’s translators might have employed). A Funny Dirty Little War could be even dirtier.

I’m not sure if Caistor or an editor or even Soriano settled on the English title A Funny Dirty Little War, which, as I mentioned above, called for my attention. Soriano’s original title is No habrá más penas ni olvido: “Pain and longing shall be no more.” This original title (from a tango by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera that expresses a longing to return to Argentina) suggests the deeper melancholy behind the narrative’s farcical, funny contours. The novel was first published in 1978, while Soriano was living in exile in Europe after the US-supported 1976 military coup in Argentina. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1984 after the junta’s collapse. Caistor’s English translation of No habrá más penas ni olvido published two years later.

A Funny Dirty Little War will in no way explain the Dirty War to those unfamiliar with its history. The causes and effects here unfold in the most basic way (all in a neat Aristotelian unity of action, place, and time). There is no introspection, no analysis—the violence just escalates. Absurd farce hurtles into absurd tragedy. Yet for all their outlandish, grotesque contours, Soriano’s characters are ultimately sympathetic. Or at least pathetic. In any case, this short novel will reward those who don’t mind their black humor extra bitter, with a heavy dose of violence.

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist — Andrea Solario

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1507–1509) by Andrea Solario (1460–1524)

A Fool and a Woman — Lucas van Leyden

A Fool and a Woman, 1520 by Lucas van Leyden (c. 1494–1533)

Study of Hand — William Mulready

Study of Hand by William Mulready (1786-1863)

Free — Kenton Nelson

Free by Kenton Nelson (b. 1954)