Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My First Literary Love by Laura Benedict

Cormac, Forever.
If I were to be totally honest with myself--which I almost never am--I would tell you that my first literary crush was on Somerset Maugham. I was in my mid-twenties when I discovered his work, and considered it literature of the highest order. His novel, Of Human Bondage, written in 1915, follows the life of an aimless, privileged Englishman name Philip Carey who gets emotionally involved with a nasty waitress named Mildred. Mildred abuses him shamelessly, runs off and gets pregnant by some cad, then returns to abuse him some more. There’s a happy ending after 500-some pages, but it’s definitely not happy for Mildred. Fabulous story, compelling prose.
Maugham was an Old World gentleman and bon vivant. I always imagined he and P.G. Wodehouse were at school together. In an autobiography, he advised young writers to put their first novel in a drawer and leave it there, as he did. I followed his advice and have never regretted it.
Sadly, Mr. Maugham was quickly booted off my heart’s literary pedestal for another older man, one far less elegant than Mr. Maugham, when my (then) husband-to-be gave me a book called Blood Meridian.
Reader, I was enraptured! Was it by the horrifying scene of murdered babies hanging from a tree? Starving, skeletal horses? Maybe the treachery and innumerable scalpings throughout? (Did you know the Dutch brought the tradition of scalping enemies to the New World as an accounting measure?) Or, perhaps I was simply drawn to the alien images of the Wild West. No John Wayne movie could ever happen in McCarthy’s world. It’s a world so intensely masculine and gorgeous and fraught with danger, that I sometimes realize I’ve been holding my breath as I read.
I quote (I’m using quotation marks to indicate I’m quoting from the novel--McCarthy is, of course, way too economical with his efforts to bother with trivialities like punctuation):
“Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.”
Primal, indeed. I want to roll naked through that prose like a miser might through a mound of thousand dollar bills.
As a new writer, I was overcome by the authority of his voice. My own was weak and kittenish and inconsistent. Every one of McCarthy’s words feels intentional. Imagine  writing without compromise, without giving a damn that some jealous critic might feel the want of a comma.
I went back and read Outer Dark, Child of God, The Orchard Keeper and Suttree, his earliest novels. Because they’re mostly set in Appalachia, I felt a kinship with the landscape. To add to the aura of romance, I heard that McCarthy lived in a motel somewhere in Tennessee. Until this writing I never wanted to track down the motel rumor, lest I discover it to be untrue. But I found out it was true--according to the Cormac McCarthy Society website, he lived in a Knoxville hotel in 1981.
I confess I temporarily dumped my literary hero over his Border Trilogy. I read All The Pretty Horses, but was skittish because it was a huge bestseller. I found it...thin. Someday I’ll read all three books. Maybe when I’m old(er).
McCarthy won me back with No Country for Old Men, one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. The razor-sharp precision of his prose in both that novel and The Road leave me breathless all over again. Though, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road, I refused to watch the momentous Oprah interview. What if my idol really did have feet of clay? It was his work I loved. And his photograph. I adored that weathered, ruggedly handsome face. Perhaps I’ve been burned too many times by actors who seem noble on the screen, then open their mouths in interviews to reveal they are dumb as rocks. I prefer to revel in fantasy, thank you.
I think I’ve maybe wandered out of crush territory and into true love. And how funny that it was my husband who introduced Mr. McCarthy to me. Long-term relationships really are the best, don’t you think?
Laura Benedict’s latest novel is Devil’s Oven, a Gothic thriller set in Appalachia. Its cover is black and orange and mysterious, just like the cover of her husband’s 1988 copy of Blood Meridian. You can find out more about her and her work at www.laurabenedict.com .


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

Goodness, lady... "I want to roll naked through that prose like a miser might through a mound of thousand dollar bills."

Excellent post, Laura! I'm afraid I've never read any of McCarthy's work, though. Where should I start?

Laura Benedict said...

I'm so happy you let me come by to gush, dear Sabrina. Thank you!

Hmmm. Knowing your love for the criminal element, I would start with No Country for Old Men to see if you like his writing. If you started with The Road, you would end up crying your eyes out and never want to read another--though you will want to read it, eventually. It's terribly moving.

After No Country, jump in. The water's fine, if a little, uh, bloody. ; )