I know the news is bad (as usual), another horror unfolding right before our eyes, brought to us in real time, boasting pools of real blood. Shouts and screams; pandemonium. The gruesome footage first exploited, then preserved for posterity. There are cameras everywhere these days and not much escapes their notice. The best bits make it on to the nightly news. The ninety year-old grandma fending off two burly robbers with a replica .38. Looters smashing windows and emptying storefronts with the ferocious glee of rampaging Mongols. The fat kid facing down his tormentors in the school foyer, finally fighting back after years of taking it on the chin. Drawing on reservoirs of rage as he batters his opponent. We gape, we weep, we applaud, we shake our heads.
What a world.
But that isn’t all there is to it. There is sanity and normality out there. The crazy shit, it exists, no denying it. Usually the setting is some big city, concentrations of people leading to explosions and meltdowns with tragic consequences. But not always. Small towns and remote farm houses are just as prone to evil thoughts, the cruelties equally inventive.
I repeat: that isn’t all there is to it.
This month I’ve done more traveling than I have in ages. Usually, it’s my wife and kids who take off, leaving me alone in my office, grinding away on a big summer project. At it for eighteen hours at a time, no need to socialize or pretend to be human. It’s a ritual that’s been reprised almost every summer I can remember. But this year it was different. I had a couple of projects nearing completion and discovered a desire, an urge, an imperative, to enjoy my summer, seek out company, visit unexplored places, drink in experience. First, it was off to northern Manitoba, visiting Sherron’s brother and family. They live on the shores of a gorgeous lake and we spent several lovely evenings trolling around on their pontoon boat, our hooks dragging in the water. Snagged two lovely pickerels—no, really, here’s the proof:
Er, that’s me in the hat. My brother-in-law would never forgive me if I didn’t clarify that. And he’s a big guy, as you can tell. I caught those two babies literally our last morning there and the relief on both our faces is palpable. Finally...
Returning home, a long, ten-hour drive, barely catching our breath (it seemed) and then heading off to Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan. Stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast that used to be an old Convent (hey, Mette, Robert & Christine!), driving and hiking around the park, astonished by the diversity of the eco-system, having an unsettling encounter with a bison (no fences, folks) and constantly scanning the ground for rattlesnakes. Glorious, just glorious. Visually striking region and perhaps that explains the many artists who make their home in the vicinity. Judging by the work on exhibit at the Grasslands Gallery (hey, Laureen!) in Val Marie, there are some very talented folks in that neck of the woods. Er, bush, actually. Not many trees in those parts. Scrub, rolling ground and vast fields of wild plants and flowers.
It’s semi-arid, hilly and wind-scoured; cowboy country. This ol’ western nut felt right at home there. Wrote that poem you’ll find in the preceding post. Met a lot of really nice people who didn’t give the impression they were about to embark on an axe-murdering spree or intended to poison their neighbor in retaliation for an incident that occurred decades ago. We walked in the hills and stood on some tall bluffs and buttes that looked out over a land that was beautiful and light-filled and right. Between the sky, the universe and that modest height, there was an unspoken concord, a sense that, whatever else may be going on on the vast, spreading universe, Sherron and I had been granted a short but memorable glimpse of the goodness and majesty no dark cloud can entirely conceal.
by William Gay
(Anchor Canada; PB; $22.00)
“…he climbed up a chimney to a corridor above the stream and entered into a tall and bellshaped cavern. Here the walls with their softlooking convolutions, slavered over as they were with wet and bloodred mud, had an organic look to them, like the innards of some great beast. Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints..”
Cormac McCarthy; Child of God
The comparisons are inevitable.
Two southern writers, both of whom employ lyrical, macabre prose to delineate the wicked hearts of people inhabiting places far from the lights of the city, an outer darkness where ordinary rules don’t apply.
Rather than shy away from any association with his celebrated colleague, Mr. Gay acknowledges and embraces it, to the extent that he quotes from McCarthy’s Suttree—“The rest indeed is silence”—to begin the second half of Twilight.
The similarities are there but Gay’s worldview is nowhere near as dense, unrelenting and hopeless as McCarthy’s. McCarthy is a poet, his method studied, deliberate, his word choices rich and sinuous but always scrupulously measured and metered; Gay practically gushes:
“The wagon came out of the sun with its attendant din of iron rims turning on flinty shale, its worn silvergray fired orange by the malefic light flaring behind it, the driver disdaining the road for the shortcut down the steep incline, erect now and sawing the lines, riding the brake onehanded until the wheels locked and skidded, then releasing it so that wagon and team and man moved in a constantly varying cacophony of shrieks and rattles and creaks and underlying it all the perpetual skirling of steel on stone.”
-opening sentence of Twilight (italics in the original)
Gay’s Granville Sutter finds his closest fictional relative in McCarthy’s oeuvre in Lester Ballard, from the aforementioned Child of God. Both kill without remorse and don’t shy away from the bloody part of the business. There is much to fear from a man who is capable of terrible deeds, acting without flinching, proceeding without so much as a backward glance. Such a man is to be avoided and you certainly wouldn’t want one as an enemy…
Corrie and Kenneth Tyler finds themselves in Sutter’s murderous sights owing to a combination of bad judgement, a desire for vengeance and, it must be said, a certain amount of plain, old fashioned greed. They stumble across the grisly postmortem shenanigans of the town’s resident undertaker, Fenton Breece. Breece likes to ah, tamper with the cadavers he has access to in his professional capacity. Corrie is determined to make the mortician pay for interfering with her father’s body and inflicting all manner of macabre indignities on his helpless clients.
The first twenty or thirty pages of Twilight make for tough sledding as the evil that Breece is enacting is revealed to the reader. Corrie convinces her reluctant brother to help her extort money from Breece and it’s at that point that Sutter is called in, charged with the job of putting an end to the blackmail.
The second section of the book is a protracted chase scene. There’s too much foreshadowing of Sutter’s eventual fate and I never quite figured out his odd fixation with Kenneth Tyler. The roots of the connection remain undisclosed and, to my mind, quite unfathomable.
Twilight is a dark book, not only in terms of the disturbing imagery but also in its depiction of the backwoods people, the bleak secrets they harbour, the corruption that engenders. They are a hard and mean bunch, seasoned by grim fortune, embittered rather than ennobled by suffering and privation. Young Kenneth Tyler has no resources to fall back on when he runs afoul of Sutter, no assistance or relief forthcoming from the hostile and suspicious community he was born and raised into.
“He ate and tossed the bones beyond the circle of firelight where they were contested with snarls and he could see their green eyes moving about like paired fireflies. When the meat was gone and he’d lain down to sleep with his rifle for bunkmate he could see a circle of their eyes drawn about the fire and in his mind he could see them stretched out, chins on paws, warily studying the fire and this strange god they’d adopted. As if they’d wearied of this wild life of freedom and hoped he could give them back what they’d lost of civilization.”
Mr. Gay tells a tall tale but at least he tells it well. The territory is remote, barren, depopulated, pocked with sinkholes, dotted with abandoned factory towns, overgrown graveyards, dissolving machinery. Ghosts of the past loom up everywhere.
Few acquit themselves well in Twilight and there’s no deliverance here, redemption in this case amounting to survival and little more. It’s a primal, ferocious novel, a thriller and then some.
It makes no apologies for itself, eschews pretension and therefore earns our respect.
Note: At no point during the course of this critique did its author once use the term “Southern Gothic”
by Laurence Bergreen
(Knopf Canada; HC: $36.95)
Marco Polo, the dauntless explorer. World traveler and raconteur. Shameless liar and self-promoter. Confidante of Kublai Khan. “Il Milione” and his bottomless store of fanciful tales. Respected merchant of Venice. Prisoner of war…
Held under house arrest by the Genoese after a calamitous naval battle, Marco, in his mid-forties but already packing the experiences of ten lifetimes under his belt, entertains his captors and fellow prisoners with stories of his adventures in the realm of the Mongols. Another prisoner, Rustichello, proposes they collaborate on a written account of his rambles and the two of them set to work. Rustichello is more partial to Arthurian romances, it’s true, but this Polo fellow tells a fine tale and, besides, it’s something to do to while away the long hours of captivity. Sometimes their imaginations get the best of them; Rustichello, in particular, is never one to let mere facts ruin a good story.
The embellishments they concoct diminish a great work, testifying against its veracity as an historical document. Sometimes, not content to be a mere observer, Marco puts himself front and center, undeservedly claiming credit, exaggerating his importance. Before we get too far into his Travels, his father and uncle (arguably greater explorers than their kinsman), disappear from its pages, reappearing only sporadically. Brazen egotism, a reluctance to share the spotlight…or an editorial decision, axing them to streamline the plot?
Mr. Bergreen’s conversant and agreeable biography of the Venetian explorer makes for a good introduction to the man and the era he lived in. I had no idea there were so many different versions of Travels extant, miscopied and incomplete, fragmentary or expurgated, some renditions twice as long as the others. There is no definitive text. Which is closest to the original? Historians finding it difficult resisting the temptation to fill in the gaps with speculation, extrapolations. These might amount to learned guesses…or, on the flip side, unproveable notions (Marco may have become addicted to opium during a lengthy sojourn in Afghanistan). Without hard evidence they contribute little to the historical record, suppositions based on the slenderest evidence, a tidbit of malign gossip, deserving of a footnote, nothing more.
Mr. Bergreen does an admirable job of setting the scene for us—his descriptions of 13th century Venice are convincing. He recreates the Polos’ arduous expeditions with clarity and we get a keen appreciation for the ordeals they endured throughout their three year trek to the court of Kublai Khan.
Mr. Bergreen’s biography makes it clear that young Marco experiences quite an extraordinary transformation in the course of his journey through the Near East and Asia. When he first sets out he is full of loathing for the disparate cultures he encounters, their perverse sexual practices and savage, pagan beliefs. But gradually his haughty Catholic sensibilities are won over by the courage and toughness of the Mongol people. Whereas he has been led to believe they are a savage and uncivilized race, he recognizes a different reality and has a complete change of heart. He becomes their biggest fan.
The Great Lord’s court is a melting pot of cultures and he is not averse to using intelligent and trustworthy agents of all nationalities to fulfill his schemes and designs. Marco’s admiration for the Khan is profound: here is a canny ruler who displays ruthlessness and guile, a shrewd intelligence and, as a result, has achieved the highest seat in the world. Surely he must be the greatest of all men, wise and just in his way.
But Marco’s admiration for the aging Khan is severely tested by the evidence he sees of the ferocity of the Khan’s reprisals. Troops loyal to the sovereign lay waste to great swathes of land, killing or uprooting many people. Any uprisings or displays of disloyalty are severely punished…as Marco discovers when his duties take him through present-day Burma and Vietnam. The Mongols wage total war; frequently none are spared.
After seventeen years of devoted service to the Khan, the Polos approach their master and patron, expressing a desire to return to their homeland. He is not immediately receptive. There have been embarrassing military setbacks in Japan and, most recently, Java. The Mongols’ air of invincibility has been shattered. The Khan has lost face and feels that the foreigners in his court enhance his prestige.
But a pretext presents itself and the Khan reluctantly allows them to accompany a princess to the lands of an important ally. From there, they will have royal fiat to go where they wish within his empire.
They make it back to Venice but find that during their extended absence, relatives have presumed them dead and divvied up their possessions. They manage to settle their affairs and, thanks to the riches they’ve brought with them from the East, are able to establish themselves among the city’s gentry.
But Marco finds the sedentary life of a merchant rather boring after sharing a ger (tent) with the fierce and noble Mongols, the boldest and finest people on earth. He’s middle-aged when he’s captured after the Battle of Curzola and incarcerated at the Palazzo di San Giorgio with Rustichella.
After his release he returns to Venice, where he does well for himself. Despite his affluence and excellent circumstances, Marco earns a reputation for being difficult, litigious. He marries and sires three daughters but one gets the impression that for Marco, like Ulysses in the Tennyson poem, his friends and family “know him not”. His time in the East changed him irrevocably, set him apart from his fellow men. He is a stranger to them; he has seen things with his own eyes they cannot conceive of.
At the end he is bedridden, wasting away, a sad fate for such a vigorous and ambitious man. He dies during his 70th year, at home, likely the last place his restless soul wished to be.
His Travels grew in fame and stature, his name acquiring the trappings of legend. Columbus read and re-read his copy of the world’s most famous travelogue. Coleridge recognized the mythic power of the stories…
After all, that’s what drew so many people to his Genoese prison: to hear wild and thrilling and bawdy yarns of exotic, far-off lands; the flora and fauna, the untamed wilderness, but, mostly, to learn of the people who lived there, their bizarre, heathen practices:
“One Mongol custom in particular astounded Marco: the marriage of dead children…‘When there are two men, the one who has a dead male child inquires for another man who may have had a female child suited to him, and she also may be dead before she is married; these two parents make a marriage of the two dead together. They give the dead girl to the dead boy for wife, and they have documents made about it in corroboration of the dowry and marriage’…”
The two families behaved “as if the bride and groom walked among them, erasing the boundary between life and death. Afterward, ‘the parents and kinsmen of the dead count themselves as kindred and keep up their relation…as if their dead children were alive’.”
Whether secondhand or first person, real or imagined, factual or fabricated, the Travels amounted to grand entertainment to people whose perspectives were narrow and blunted. After all, foreign excursions were perilous in those times, involving no small amount of danger. Conditions on sea and land were harsh, danger ever present, travelers constantly set upon by marauders. Most never ventured far from the safety of their home villages and cities. They made for an eager but skeptical audience, their imaginations fired by accounts of worlds they would never see, while their practical mindsets insisted none of it could be real.