"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, February 03, 2007

McCarthy does some

hard traveling on 'The Road'

The Road

Cormac McCarthy

Picador, 241 Pages, 24 dollars

Bleak, desolate, cheerless, barren, joyless, disheartening--there are over a dozen synonyms in the thesaurus, but none of them really do justice to Cormac McCarthy's stark, dark vision of postapocalyptic America put forth in The Road.

And yet, amid the cold ashes of a nuclear winter, McCarthy shows us a tiny, glowing ember of hope in the love between a father and son and the purity of a small boy's heart.

In an ash-covered world of eternal twilight and biting cold, where nothing grows and the living often envy the desiccated corpses that litter the landscape, a nameless, tubercular father and his sickly young son travel the highways of the Northeastern United States, heading south and east. Their goal is the distant coast, where they hope in vain that things will be better somehow. Masked against the drifting ash, their meagre possessions piled in a shopping cart, the two trek on, scavenging canned food, tools and clothing where they are able and dodging gangs of cannibalistic bandits and slavers. Their only protection from such marauders is a revolver with just enough ammunition to take their own lives. Their only safeguard against the constant specter of death from starvation and cold is each other.

It is about as cheerful as it sounds. McCarthy's greatest strength as a writer is not his plots or characters, but the atmosphere he creates through artful minimalist descriptions and sparse narration. The atmosphere here is forbidding, to say the least.

At the same time, in a strange way, The Road may be McCarthy's warmest, most emotional work. The contrast between the bleak, hopeless landscape of a dying Earth and the tenderness for each other displayed by the father and son is heartrending.

McCarthy describes the two as "each the other's world entire" and it is clear that while it is the man who keeps the boy alive by foraging for food, building fires and protecting him from human predators, the father needs the son as much or even more than the son needs a provider and protector. The man, like the rest of the world, is dying and knows it, but goes to great pains to keep hope alive in the boy that things will get better. Despite having abandoned any pretense of morality in their fight for survival, the man draws strength from his son's insistence on kindness to strangers and faith that the parent and child are "the good guys." In an utterly amoral world, the boy is his father's moral compass, keeping him from following the rest of the world into savagery. At one point the child pleads for the life of a starving stranger who has stolen all their possessions, convincing the father to let the man go free after they have reclaimed their food and meagre equipment:

"He was just hungry, Papa. He's going to die.

He's going to die anyway.

He's so scared, Papa.

The man squatted and looked at him. I'm scared, he said. Do you understand? I'm scared.

The boy didn't answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing.

You're not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldn't understand him. What? he said.

He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one."

Indeed, the boy is the personification of all the good left in the man's world. His wife has given in to despair and taken her own life, and every vestige of the old world is gone. He stays alive only to make sure the boy survives and does not despair.

The two live a life of almost complete immediacy. For them there is no future but the vague aim of reaching the coast and, for the boy at least, no memory of the past except for a hazy recollection of his dead mother.

McCarthy's spare prose matches the barren landscape of the novel. It is stripped even of much of the punctuation--there are no quotation marks and precious few commas or apostrophes. Like Hemingway, McCarthy pares his writing down to the barest essentials, purging it of descriptive excess and extended metaphor until it becomes akin to prose poetry. One can open the book and chose a passage almost at random and see McCarthy's mastery of rhythm and imagery:

"In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all."

Unlike Hemingway--whose entire body of work probably comprises a lexicon of no more than a few thousand words and only a few hundred of those of more than three syllables--McCarthy has a clear affection for using obscure but appropriate terminology. The man descends to a "gryke" in the stone of a mountainside; a roaming bandit army is accompanied by a "consort of catamites"; the man and boy are described as "mendicant friars."

Despite the gloom and doom, the book is ultimately uplifting and even moving, without descending into mawkish sentimentality or emotionalism. McCarthy is one of the most skilled writers working today, and The Road shows him at the top of his form.

(Feb. 3, 2007)


Not Too Late

Toshiba EMI, 2,500 yen

New York-based pop-jazz chanteuse Norah Jones is back with her third solo album, Not Too Late.

Jones continues to mine the same vein of subtle, sophisticated and subdued ear candy that made her two previous solo efforts smash hits. Not Too Late is possibly Jones' most personal album to date, recorded as it was in the home studio she shares with partner and longtime collaborator, bassist Lee Alexander.

Jones wrote or cowrote all 14 songs on Not Too Late and the recording shows her maturing as a songwriter and singer. While her previous albums were stylistically diverse with covers of Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael, and even a bluegrass duet with Dolly Parton laid alongside Jones' own jazz-inflected mix of country, soul and classic pop, Not Too Late has a more cohesive feel to it. The songs flow into one another and there seems to be a more focused artistic vision.

That is not to say Jones' sound has become homogenized--if anything she has become more adventurous. As with her previous outings, most of the songs are built around Jones' piano and acoustic guitar played by a variety of guests including Jesse Harris, Tony Scherr and Kevin Breit. Jones even takes a crack at the fretboard herself on one track.

As a composer, Jones' early jazz training shows in every note, as does her obvious affection for simpler country, folk and old-time soul. Her songwriting style harks back to the prerock days of the Tin Pan Alley composers who wrote for artists such as Frank Sinatra and Patsy Cline. While songs of that era may seem bland in comparison to punk rock, bebop jazz or more flamboyant modern pop, they, like Jones' compositions, have a sense of substance, craftsmanship and musicality that most rock-based pop music simply doesn't have. Jones' songs are very much in the tradition of these so-called standards.

Still mostly understated and midtempo, songs like "The Sun Doesn't Like You" and "Not My Friend" show a darker side than Jones has previously revealed. She also gives us some political ruminations--the Brechtian "Sinking Soon" sounds like something accidentally left out of "Cabaret." "My Dear Country" is an ominous minor key lament that reminds the listener that "Nothing is as scary as election day." Going a step further, Jones shows her political colors with the lines "Who knows, maybe the plans will change/Who knows, maybe he's not deranged" with the context leaving very little question who she's singing about.

Not Too Late is a deeper, darker and more complex work than any of Jones previous material but still eminently listenable.



Buffalo Records, 2,500 yen

Keller Williams is a name that is not well-known outside the jam-band subculture, and that is unfortunate because the singer-songwriter and one-man-band has the kind of positive, upbeat, quirky sound that has broad appeal.

Dream, Williams' ninth studio album, pairs him with a wish list of favorite artists who are also mostly off the beaten track. The guest list includes Grateful Dead frontman Bob Weir, experimental banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, bass whiz Victor Wooten, jazz guitar ace Charlie Hunter, String Cheese Incident, Michael Franti, John Scofield and Martin Sexton.

Oddly enough, the standout track among the many excellent duets is "Restraint" a bouncy, earthily sexy and funny number that is pure Williams.

Dream is a must-have for Williams' fans and an excellent introduction to Williams and his kindred spirits for the uninitiated.

(From The Daily Yomiuri Feb. 3, 2007)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Free Josh Wolf

Journalist Josh Wolf Longest Jailed In History - News

"The federal grand jury is seeking unaired sections of a videotape Wolf made of an anarchist demonstration in San Francisco on July 8, 2005, in which a police officer was injured. The panel is investigating a possible attempted arson of a police car that was partly paid for with federal funds. Wolf contends that handing over the tape would make him into a spy for the government and impede his ability to work as a journalist."

Damn straight, make the Gestapo do its own dirty work! Fight on!

Blessed are the meek

Which is good because they aren't going to get much other than a blessing from Christians like the good Rev. E.F. Briggs. Now in his late 90s, I suppose he is hoping the hurry the rapture along. So much for turning the other cheek. Apparently the notion of freedom of religion including freedom from religion is lost on this bozo-of-the-cloth. Do by all means write and tell the good Rev. E.F. Briggs what you think of him, after all he has left us an address. I know I will.
Update: Apparently the not-so-good Rev. Briggs went to his reward last year, so he isn't likely to read your letters or mine.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Franken 4 Senate
While he hasn't officially announced just yet, NBC is reporting that Al Franken will seek the Senate seat currently held by Republican Norm Coleman. Give'em hell Al! I bet you never really thought about this when you were introducing the Al Franken decade back on SNL, did you?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

my old hometown
The depressing part of this story, aside from the obvious redneckery, is that my old hometown of Sault Ste. Marie has become shorthand for such bigotry to Quebecers. Personally, I always thought it was ironic that the city council there were the first gang of jackasses to jump on the English-only bandwagon back in the early 90s when the town has a French name and about a third of the population speaks Italian fluently. (thanks Joe!)

you can't make this stuff up

From Think Progress via Fark, we are told the new White House Pastry Chef is very, very well prepared for his new job.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Now hear this:
As you can see, we here at the Woodshed have made the leap to the new Blogger, though there seem to still be a few flies in the ointment.
In the meantime, you can listen to a brand new installment of Urayasu's answer to the three stooges on Rubber Chicken Radio.