Short Story – ‘Deadmonger’

I wasn’t much of a social kind of person in my early adolescence, neither was I particularly street-wise. Now, that’s not to say I was some kind of recluse or something. I was just naturally more introverted and accustomed to familiarity than the other more gregarious kids (although, as I’ll explain later, I wasn’t as utterly alien to spontaneity as you might imagine). Some weekends, during the hours that many of my classmates were likely arsing around playing knock-a-door-dash, I would sit myself down in the living room in front of the television, usually in the company of my mother, who was for the most part perfectly content to enjoy the relative scarcity of peace that only the late hours of the day could afford her (some might call it ‘respite’).

Anyway, this one evening, we sat watching this programme about missing persons and rivers. It was without doubt one of the saddest – sobering, even – things I’d seen at that time (almost as jarring as a documentary I once watched on Romanian children being forced into prostitution, also in the company of my mother). It followed men who had to dive and sift through ponds and estuaries in search of bodies. I can’t quite remember how they knew where to find them, but they did sometimes receive tip offs by passersby – dog walkers, joggers, and even potential victims themselves.

Thinking back on it now, most of the guys, who worked the most secluded places in town in search of the dead, kind of remind me of the protagonist out of that T.C. Boyle story ‘Greasy Lake’ (definitely not the Springsteen song of the same name, mind). It kicks off with this wannabe teddy boy finding a dead junkie in the river, one crazy summer evening. Of course, in the story, the guy willingly wades into the water in an attempt to flee danger, not the other way around. He also doesn’t tell another soul of his discovery. So much for doing the decent thing, hey. Still, I imagine that must take some doing, to keep a thing like that secret. I mean, the guys who do the deed aren’t privy to such a luxury. They don’t have a choice. But alas, I digress.

Where was I…?? Ah, that’s it. Okay, so. There was this one man I’ll always remember, because he had such a particular way, a routine even, of collecting the bodies from the river. He kind of reminded me of a fishmonger, only he wasn’t out to fillet anyone. He couldn’t, his quarry was already… well, dead. I suppose you could probably call him a ‘deadmonger’ then; OR maybe even ‘Forager of the Fallen’ (so the legend would go); ‘Esquire of the Expired’ (Information Age American teen fantasy novel-esque), or last but not least, ‘Consoler of the Conked Out’ (borderline fratboy romp, no. Scratch that, black comedy). Let’s just say you could think of this guy as the Grim Reaper, sans the malevolence; just the right amount of candid without any trace of levity.

Anyway, this man. He differentiated himself from all of the other deadmongers because he cared – that is to say he felt genuine grief for the bodies he exhumed – and treated each corpse with immense sensitivity and compassion.
In fact, so intense was his concern for the deceased that upon approaching a body he would gently reassure it as to his intentions – not unlike a firefighter would a stray cat atop a tree on a windy day.
‘I’m here now mate’ he would say, deftly guiding each body through the water. ‘It’s okay now, I’ve got you’. I mean, bloody hell. That really affected me in I way I’d never been affected before. I’d even go as far as saying it was pretty darn epiphanous – within the realms of telly, of course.
Nevertheless, that particular memory – and the sudden surge of mortality it instilled in me – has stayed with me ever since, and most likely always will.

6 Crucial Reasons to Speak Up from Audre Lorde

Wonder Sonder

audre_lorde-1One of the most important speeches that I have read about creative processes was delivered by Audre Lorde, American poet and writer extraordinaire. At the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbian and Literature Panel,” in Chicago on December 28, 1977, Lorde spoke at length about the repercussions of silencing our inner voices, instead of embracing our unique personal experiences, as a crucial deterrent to silencing the creative voices necessary to engender producing positive knowledge and understanding the world around us.

The speech was later published in Sinister Wisdom 6 (1978) and The Cancer Journals (Spinsters, Ink, San Francisco, 1980). There are several key lessons about perseverance that we can take away about the act of speaking about things that affect us. We can take away many crucial lessons about voice from Lorde.

1. Making mistakes doesn’t detract from the power of speech to profit you:

I have come to believe over and over again that what…

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2014 in Review: My Year of Live Music (Part 1)

Time for an uncharacteristically candid post. As all undecadent non-hipsters tend to say, I had the immense pleasure of seeing a melange of old and new(er) musicians live this year. At this stage, you’re no doubt wondering why on earth I didn’t just review each gig as I went along. I mean, surely that’s what any run of the mill music journo would do, right? Well, not exactly. For starters, I’m not an aspiring music journo per se, so I’m kind of exempt from that particular expectation at the very least. HOKAY. Sooo! Here’s the part one of my Live Music Roundup (i.e., a fuzzy recollection of virtually every gig I attended in 2014 complete with a corresponding Spotify playlist. I know, hip right?)

Where better to start than back in January, with Maximo Park – My first gig of 2014. I’d not graced Liverpool’s O2 Academy since seeing Jake Bugg there the previous February (oh how the times have changed) and it certainly felt like longer. MP are a band I’ve revered for the best part of a decade, so I was especially pleased to have the opportunity of reliving the nostalgia of my early teens. I’d originally caught wind of the band whilst sat in the bath (of all places) one autumn evening. Indifferent to much of the samey indie fare played on Zane Lowe’s infamous evening show, the emotional bombast of ‘Graffiti’ had immediately caught my attention, and I distinctly remember straining to hear the name of this exuberant North-East ‘Indie’ band over the tinny shower radio, all those years ago. I’d previously flirted with the idea of seeing band back in 2009 at the same venue, but never did, so naturally jumped at the chance of seeing the Park in action. They were everything I expected and more.

My next live music affair, in April, was a little less intimate (but only just). Fronted by the eternally affable Guy Garvey, Elbow’s music is known for its heart, soul and uplifting magnificence. Amongst the group’s many strengths is their ability to transform a large Arena into a venue half its size, a feat seemingly at odds with its reputation as the world’s leading purveyor of sing-along anthems (an impression that is actually fairly unfounded). In fact, the atmosphere of the band’s largely ‘unplugged’ setlist (coupled with the non-resonant acoustics of the Echo Arena) differed somewhat from their less subdued end of tour appearance at the venue a year and a half previously. Nevertheless, seeing Bury’s finest in concert is always an uplifting, even life affirming experience. Much like Coldplay in days gone by, witnessing Elbow in a live setting is a bit like being given a warm embrace by a long lost friend. What more could you possibly want?

Fast forward to June, and I’m at Pond’s chaotic show at UoM’s Club Academy. I’m stood just to the left of a surprisingly excitable mosh pit, my eyes fixed firmly on the weedy form of one Nick Allbrook, the band’s principal lyricist and effectual frontman. Regaled in a tatty ombre jumper and exuding something of an androgynous aesthetic, Allbrook perches himself atop his monitor several times during the show. With each abrupt anarchic jolt I’m becoming increasingly certain that he’s going to take the plunge and dive into the crowd (I have a feeling he probably would if it were not for the meagre reach of his rather short guitar lead). Such onstage – or rather ‘offstage’ – tomfoolery is standard fare at many of the band’s shows, yet judging by the rambunctious exchange of giggles and grins, I have a feeling that the Perth five-piece were not quite expecting such a uproariously fabulous reception.

Onto July and Tame Impala, whose vibes, oscillating ‘backfrops’, scintillating vocals and grooves a-plenty combined with the quasi-baroquian interior of Manchester’s Albert Hall for a memorable live music experience. Fronted by psych-gaze maestro Kevin Parker, the Aussie outfit is actually a sibling of Pond with both bands sharing members (although at this stage it’s a case of the chicken and the egg, as it’s not entirely clear who came first). Yet despite their shared and overlapping heritage, it’s fair to say that both acts function as two separate and distinct branches from the same musical tree. Whereas Pond are often manic, Tame are resoundingly mellifluous. Directed by Parker’s imploring, sermonic vocals and synth-like guitar leads, the band rides a wave of momentum (in direct contrast to the former, who are much more likely to dive in headfirst). Surging high into the psychedelic stratosphere, groove after groove takes flight – some drift effortlessly, whereas other appear to dissipate amidst the hypnotic lighting behind the stage. Despite having to leave roughly 3/4 of the way through the set, the band’s performance was an engrossing one nevertheless and left me curious as to how things will pan out for Kevin Parker and co., in 2015 and beyond.

At this rate, I’m retroactively wondering if next month’s offering will leave me in a similarly trance-like state…

To August, and beyond!

 

October Obsessions

Despite what’s been almost a complete year since my last post (don’t ask), I’m glad to announce that the boot – or red sued training shoe, to be precise – of this buccaneering bibliophile is well and truly betwixt the door frame of the blogosphere and the front end of a Gender Studies masters course (all in good time, all in good time).

I won’t and can’t attempt to justify the inordinate amount of time I’ve taken away from my blog (don’t worry, I didn’t completely neglect it. I was always lurking). So, instead I’m going to share with ye, the good awld faithful of the blogging crowd (chortle chortle), a few of my latest obsessions and inspirations – both literary and musical. A brief post, but hopefully the first of many more between now and the new year (so long as I can keep afloat with my MA, that is *nervous laugh*). Who knows? I may even add a few more extra bezzies for you to check out in the coming days and weeks.

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Robbie Basho & Connie Converse

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Zach de la Rocha & Jon Theodore, aka One Day As A Lion

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Mark Sandman of Morphine

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James Baldwin

‘Well, if there’s gonna be any shooting…’: phallocentrism in Sergio Leone’s ‘For A Few Dollars More’.

'Well, if there's gonna be any shooting...': phallocentrism in Sergio Leone's 'For A Few Dollars More'.

‘Amigo, why did you help me out?’
‘Well, there’s such a big reward being offered on all you gentlemen…that I thought I might just tag along on your next robbery… I might just turn you into the law’.
[one of Indio’s men aims, and deftly shoots off the tip of Manco’s cigar]
‘Amigo…that’s the one answer that would prove you’re all right…’

Upon watching Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’ as I recently have been for the first time since childhood, I couldn’t help but notice how vague my preconceptions of the films’ plot and visual stylisation really were. Once I got past the offbeat syncing and dodgy accents of ‘Fistful of Dollars’ (1964), I found myself viewing ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965) from a purely masculinist perspective (which is rather unsurprising given that its my foremost theoretical concern academically). Yet more specifically, it struck me just how explicitly Jacques Derrida’s concept of Phallocentrism (i.e. framing the Phallus as the creator of meaning) related to the interactions and performances of the almost exclusively male ensemble of gunslingers, bandits, drunks and of course, bounty hunters.

Indeed, it was the latter group – that embodied the pinnacle of the film’s continuously fluctuating macho hierarchy – that most intrigued me. Throughout the film, the intensely phallic interplay between the infamous Manco or ‘Man with No Name’ (Clint Eastwood), Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and their principal target, El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) ranges from the playfully exhibitionist to the explosively homo-erotic. In what constitutes perhaps the most evocative display of hetero-masculine dominance in classic cinema, the trio constantly vie for phallic supremacy by attempting to out draw each other in relentless shootouts and standoffs (scenarios which now supersede the actual reputations of the films themselves).

In his article for The Film Journal, ‘Sex and the Single Gunslinger: Homoeroticism in Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns’, Dan Jardine  claims that the solitariness, sparsity and relentless peril of the bounty hunter lifestyle are exhibited in an overtly erotic phallic interplay between the duo of protagonists – Manco, Colonel Mortimer and the central antagonist El Indio:

‘…what are the men to do with all [their] pent up energy? Why, they play with their guns, of course. That, and they light up. Constantly. The ubiquitous tobacco smoking vessels, whether cigars, cigarettes or pipes, and the lighting of same becomes a ritual that brims with either homo-eroticism or naked aggression’.

Jardine not only identifies the use of a firearm as an extension of masculine sexuality; the implication is that gun slinging, and its perilous competitiveness, is a display of repressed homo-erotic desire. Interestingly, he also refers to the puckish gun-tooting tomfoolery between Manco and Col. Mortimer as being not just a rivalry or even a friendship, but a ‘consummation’ of a transgressive relationship:

‘…the gun play… is essential to their identity and masculinity. The real man is quick on the draw, and shoots with deadly accuracy. Leone also has his characters use their weapon playfully-witness, for example, the first meeting of Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More, where the two men exchange opportunities to show off their talents with their weapons by blasting the other man’s hat all over the dusty streets of Sante Fe… Each impressed by the other’s dexterity, the two men soon become partners. How to consummate such a relationship? Why, light up, of course!’

Indeed, what better way to commemorate a homo-social partnership than engaging in the most intensely phallic of activities? Homo-erotic imagery abounds in this scene – perhaps more so than any other throughout the entire film. Thus ensues a relentless exchange of phallic marksmanship and we observe Manco’s sadistic glare as he watches Mortimer painstakingly bend over to reach for his hat, only to ejaculate a single well aimed shot at the last moment. This represents the ultimate phallic dictation on the part of Manco as he is able to both demonstrate his own phallic prowess whilst subjugating his rival’s machoism and masculine legitimacy. In this sense, Mortimer is forced (and to some extent submits) into the role of the masochistic phallicist, whilst Manco momentarily performs the role of masculinist patriarch.

As such, the implications of this sexually ambiguous mode of masculinity behove us to (or at least attempt to) deconstruct the hardy exterior of Eastwood’s archetypal anti-hero. Eastwood himself has stated that he ‘wanted to play [the role of Manco] with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement. It was just the kind of character I had envisioned for a long time, keep to the mystery and allude to what happened in the past…I felt the less he said, the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience’. Eastwood’s characterisation of himself suggests a desire to evoke the archetypal masculine binary of the lone, subdued and infinitely infallible male hero. Yet, his particular emphasis on the vitality of the audience responsiveness and expectation suggests an intentional move to evoke an existentialist realisation of idealised masculinity, rather than a sole reliance on methodical performativity.

Intriguingly, against the backdrop of what he terms ‘the last masculine frontier’ Eastwood has also explained how he views the role of the ‘Western’ protagonist as being that of ‘the pioneer, the loner operating by himself, without benefit of society. [His existence] usually has something to do with some sort of vengeance; he takes care of the vengeance himself…’ But what, I wonder happens to those on the loosing end, their bluff call out and their cards played to the last?

Perhaps it is as Eastwood’s Manco tells Tuco in the final scene of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’:

You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend…

…those with loaded guns, and those who dig.

You dig.

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My most recent purchases (and a whole lotta’ Bruce…)

My most recent purchases

The majority of the books I’ve bought over the last few months.

Update (19/10/2013): Since beginning my third year at university about a month or so ago, I’ve been completely immersed (submerged would be a much more appropriate term to use) in the never ending process of research for my 8,000 word dissertation. As you’ve probably guessed by now… I’m focusing on Bruce Springsteen’s semblance to American Masculinity (pretty much my dream assignment, and whats more, I chose it!). I aim to analyse a cross section of his lyrical output from his boardwalk beginnings in 1972 through to his 80’s heyday and finishing off just before his temporary hiatus from the E Street Band in 1987-88. This won’t be strictly chronological (and certainly not biographical for that matter, that isn’t my concern here) but I do intend to demonstrate how Springsteen (we’re in the realms of literary theory here don’t forget) has reached some form of progression throughout is career in both his depiction of and engagement with gender relations.

Whilst I have quite a well grounded and thorough plan of action (I have to invoke my inherent sense of masculine binary pro-activeness here, even if it is a load of codswallop..) I’ve still got a long way to go in terms of sifting through my ever expanding list of critical and comparative reading (cue references to the works of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Walker Percy and T.C. Boyle..) What you can see above is roughly 60% of my selected reading for my essay  (note that this has already increased drastically since I uploaded this picture) whilst a sizable chunk, (‘Casino Royale’, ‘In Between The Sheets’, ‘Enduring Love’ and ‘Reality Hunger’) are either not directly related to my dissertation or (as is the case with ‘The Sunset Limited’) are just books which I just happened to have bought alongside my research texts (so, basically because I like reading).

As with any protracted piece of work, the whole process is incredibly lengthy; which at the moment just consists of me with my head in a multitude of books at any given time (it is fun I promise.. at least for me it is..!) Inevitably, this leaves me with less time to sit here writing away about what I’m actually reading (whether that actually be related to my dissertation or not), hence the reason why I haven’t been blogging anywhere near as much as I’d hoped (apologies there to anyone who has been waiting patiently for the next instalment..).

From now on I’ll be blogging as often as I can, so you’ll be pleased to hear that I’m saying goodbye to protracted absences from the Blogging Crowd!!

(See what I did there…?)

Anyway, do feel free to leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything I’ve covered so far and of course, on any recommendations you’d like to share.

See you all soon!

Book Review – ‘The Moviegoer’ by Walker Percy

Image‘The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life’.

The search that Walker Percy refers to in his debut novel is one that is quintessentially American and uniquely masculine.

For Binx Bolling, a young stock broker living in postwar New Orleans, the ‘everydayness’ of life is something of a daily vexation. A decorated Korean War Veteran, Bolling struggles with regret and is unable to banish the traumatic memories of his past. Yet Bolling is by no stretch your typical run of the mill battle scarred soldier. Unassuming and overly contemplative, he lacks self esteem and constantly defines himself in relation to his family, friends and his quartet of girlfriends (so much so that he almost resembles an older, wealthier and more successful Holden Caulfield). Fast approaching 30 – a biblical reference on Percy’s part and an undesirable milestone in Bolling’s eyes – he bitterly laments over his lack of success in life and his gnostic nonfulfillment:

‘Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies – my only talent – smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall – on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire’.

Perhaps more so than any of his other psychological afflications, Bolling is most encumbered by his own personal malaise. He is mentally lethargic, yet his insistence on continuous contemplation only prolongs his unease. Yet this malaise, it would seem, is an amalgamation of a disillusionment with the mundane repetitive nature of the everyday – this is tenuous, but also perversely solacious for Bolling – and of course, his consistent flashbacks of the war. This affliction undoubtedly impairs his ability to commit to long term relationships and to seriously visualise a future beyond the present. To add insult to his fragile mental state, Bolling’s instability is underpinned by his own fluctuating sense of masculinity. Dominated by his imperious aunt, the little independence he enjoys is often undermined and his tongue-in-cheek willingness to submit to her whims is indicative of his lack of individuality.

Like any loner, he also has an overly active imagination and his recollections, whilst contemplative are often philosophical – and even border on the realms of the existential (Percy was particularly well versed in the works of Søren Kierkegaard). As a result, Bolling finds it difficult to relate to any of the people he encounters in his day to day life other than his cousin Kate (who displays symptoms of bi polar disorder and ADHD). Due to her unstable mental condition, Bolling is tasked with keeping Kate company by his authoritative Aunt and soon develops affections for Kate who, despite her unpredictability harbours a mutual enthrallment (as you will discover when you encounter the novel, when it comes to personal relationships Percy is especially enigmatic).

Yet despite his incessant procrastination (and perhaps consequently) Bolling is nevertheless regimental in inflicting his own isolation. Alternating between fatalistic wit and introverted lamentation, he ponders over the true nature of death, albeit in a social and even spiritual sense:

‘For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.
It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: “In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but–” or “Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However–” and I think to myself: this is death. Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord’.

Such a ‘death’ is perhaps emblematic of Bolling’s deep rooted spiritual despondency. He feels dejected and is alienated from the meager amount of self-worth he is able to retain in his day to day life. Unable to motivate himself and severely lacking in self belief, he prefers instead to (literally) lose himself in films and visits the cinema frequently:

‘The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in ‘Stagecoach’, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in ‘The Third Man”.

Whilst embodying the archetypal male-loner, Bolling seeks the escapism of film rather than a reinforcement of his own wavering masculine identity. As he confesses, he prefers the existential gratification that films provide as opposed to the sincere and meaningful fulfillment of human relationships (which require seemingly too much effort). Yet at the root of Bolling’s inner disdain is a desire to hide and conceal himself within the ineffectual façade he so desperately clings to – an acutely American dilemma.

Film Review – A meanness in this world: Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’

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In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.

The original tagline for Terrence Malick’s 1973 directorial debut is an unashamedly straightforward oversimplification of an unabsorbing yet uncannily masterful narrative.
Based on the true life saga of Charles Starkweather’s murderous rampage through Nebraska and Wyoming, (most famously immortalised in Bruce Springsteen’s own ‘Nebraska’ album) ‘Badlands’ documents the doomed love affair between disaffected greaser Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis, a naïve and socially awkward school girl.

Initially, ‘Badlands’ makes for an aesthetically pleasing viewing experience – although not in an overtly superficial sense. As is now self-evident to me from watching ‘To The Wonder’, ‘The Thin Red Line’ and more recently ‘The Tree Of Life’; Malick is a uniquely versatile film maker – a visionary with a profound sense of imagination. Yet what, I wondered, could be so profound about the retelling of an infamous killing spree? Can murder ever hold a more prophetic meaning? And if so, is it possible to avoid glamourising violence whilst retaining the essence of zealous gratuity that often defines it?

As Malick’s original ‘calling card’ – considered by himself and critics alike as his most definitive work – ‘Badlands’ emits a chillingly casual air of contempt for the sentimentality of profoundness, so much so that it could almost be described as being ‘anti-profound’; such is its callous and (for the time) moderately macabre approach towards death and murder. This attitude is perfectly embodied in Martin Sheen’s Kit, who frequently evokes the careless, hedonistic typification of James Dean (Holly herself remarks that Kit looks ‘just like [him]’).

Despite the depravity of his actions, Kit’s nihilistic tendencies are undoubtedly extemporaneous, and this naturally raises questions about the motivations for, and willingness to wreak such destruction. While Malick offers us a tantalising glimpse into the life of the quintessential serial killer, we are left somewhat wanting by Holly’s banal and borderline autistic narration, not to mention Kit’s overly nonchalant demeanour (of course, Malick’s almost coquettish polarisation of an essentially duopolistic narrative pays testament to his genius and dynamism).

Even though we bear witness to Kit’s unspeakable crimes, we seldom gain an effective insight into his innermost thoughts and desires (even his record booth confession seems pretentious and shallow).  Examining the cultural legacy of ‘Badlands’,  some writers such as Irwin Streight have observed how Malick’s concept of (what he terms) ‘meanness’ has influenced other manifestations of the Starkweather case in other literary forms; specifically in the lyrics of folk music and its offshoot ‘murder ballad’ genre. Streight cites the title song of Bruce Springteen’s ‘Nebraska’ album as being representative of a more intimate meditation on the Starkweather/Carruthers archetype:

I saw her standin’ on her front lawn, just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died.
 From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska with a sawed off .410 on my lap,
Through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path.
 I can’t say that I’m sorry, for the things that we done.
At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun.
 The jury brought in a guilty verdict and the judge he sentenced me to death.
Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest.
 Sheriff, when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor head back,
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin’ right there on my lap.
They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled.
They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

(Springsteen)

Rather appropriately, Springsteen directly mimics Kit’s apathetic confession – ‘I can’t say that I’m sorry, for the things that we done. At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun’ / ‘I can’t deny we’ve had fun, though. I mean, uhm, that’s more than I can say for some’.

By echoing Kit’s remorseless lament in his own dream-like retrospective style, the sheer profoundness of Springsteen’s version of events is evocatively tragic (and not in the least bit psychotic) – not just in the lexical form of his lyrics, but also in their hauntingly visceral delivery (as evidenced in the video below).

Whilst Kit’s malignant intentions are rather effectively masked by Sheen’s delectably charming façade, this also detracts from the severity of his actions. Even when this aptly encapsulates the superficiality of Kit’s unstable personality, it never allows us to inflict upon him the scathing judgment he deserves (he really is just too casual to be a believable psychopath).

Yet, that Springsteen’s portrayal differs greatly from Malick’s more palatable characterisation of Kit need not detract from that which both writers seek to address. By concerning themselves with the root cause of such meanness – Springsteen is confessional and contemplative, whilst Kit is expressionless and emotionally passive – both ponder over the sociological implications of serial murder and question whether or not such behaviour is a cause or effect of bleak social circumstances and society at large.

It is also greatly ironic that Kit could just as much envisage his life as being indistinguishable from the romanticised narratives that Springsteen weaves in ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Thunder Road’. When he hears Nat King Cole’s ‘A Blossom Fell’ on the radio whilst driving through the night, he insists on pulling over and dancing with Holly and – in a rare moment of unguarded intimacy – he whispers into her ear: ‘Boy, if I could sing a song lie that… I mean, if I could sing a song about the way I feel right now, it’d be a hit’.

And at that, the film’s tagline echoes wistfully across the night – as succinct and blunt as it ever could be.

Such is the perversity of love.

Book Review – The Border Trilogy: ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy

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What better way of beginning my first post with a review of a modern American classic?

Since watching the highly acclaimed 2007 film adaptation of ‘No Country For Old Men’ earlier this year, I have been eager to discover and experience the work of Cormac McCarthy. Now, you may find my usage of the latter verb somewhat unusual – at worst the more easily offended of you may even consider it to be a gross malapropism – but if you’re already wondering why I have opted for experience rather than say, sample or the more orthodox read (I know, I’m such a maverick) then fear not!

All jesting and linguistic tomfoolery aside; as I shall explain for those of you who do not know, Cormac McCarthy is without doubt a writer that you cannot help but experience, such is his ability to immerse his reader into the desolate and barren environments he both creates and curates. He is notorious for his dark and often bleak stylisation of America’s old (and new) southwest and his writing is infamous for its measured, unpretentious form – not least for its non-conformity. Yet still, as a chronicler of his time he is unrivaled in his tenacity and committed to exploring (what Bruce Springsteen terms) the difference between ‘American dream and American reality’.

It’s to be expected then, that his vast knowledge of American history, society and geography infuses itself in his work (no mean feat for a native of Rhode Island). This is perhaps no more evident than the first instalment of the Border Trilogy, ‘All the Pretty Horses’.

Set between the arid Texan border and the badlands of Northeastern Mexico, the narrative centres upon sixteen year old John Grady Cole, a budding cowboy who effectively loses his home after his Grandfather’s death. Faced with the prospect of having to abandon his way of life as a rancher, Grady opts to defy his mother (who seeks sell the family home for her own ends) and leave Texas along with his cousin and closest companion, Lacey Rawlins. After setting off in search of work in nearby Mexico, the pair encounter Jimmy Blevins, a young boy who arouses suspicion in Rawlins on account of his uncharacteristically large bay horse and unlikely age (apparently sixteen but much nearer thirteen). Their meeting with Blevins proves to be fatefully potent and sets into place events – some for better, some for worse – which changes the course of the narrative and their lives irrevocably.

When Blevins’ horse is stolen, a ‘cat and mouse’ like pursuit ensues and Cole and Rawlins head further south after becoming separated from Blevins. Arriving in the fertile oasis region of Coahuila, the pair find work at a local ranch and Cole soon falls in love with the ranch owner’s daughter, Alejandra; beginning an affair. However, despite developing a strong rapport with the owner of the ranch and earning the respect of its workers, the pair are arrested by the authorities under suspicion of aiding the absent Blevins – who has since killed a man whilst attempting to retrieve his horse.

Blevins is eventually executed and the cousins become imprisoned in a notoriously dangerous prison. After narrowly surviving an attack by someone hired to kill him, Cole (along with Rawlins) is eventually released through the intervention of Alejandra’s aunt. Yet at the cost of his freedom, Cole is forbidden from continuing his relationship with Alejandra who leaves for France after promising to do so on the condition that he be freed.

After a brief yet passionate rendezvous, Alejandra decides to honour her promise to her Aunt and the pair part ways never to see each other again. On his way back to the Texas, Cole kidnaps the captain who executed Blevins and forces him to recover the stolen horse. After fleeing across country returns to Texas and attempts to find the owner of Blevins’ horse and eventually reunites with Rawlins. Upon discovering that both his father and the family nursemaid – his only remaining family – have died, he decides to leave yet again and rides off alone, into the unknown.

Stylistically, McCarthy’s prose is minimalist and not in the least bit florid. Much in the vein of Hemingway, his particular preference for polysyndetic syntax (the use of several conjunctions in close succession) accommodates his unrestricted narrative style. Rather unconventionally, he is also partial to prophetic narratorial monologues that often encompass the eschatological portension of each particular event that transpires:

He picked out the smallest doe among them and shot her. Blevin’s horse rose howling where he’d tied it and the deer in the bajada leapt away and vanished in the dusk and the little doe lay kicking.

When he reached her, she lay in her blood in the grass and he knelt with the rifle and put his hand on her neck and she looked at him and her eyes were warm and wet and there was no fear in them and then she died. He sat watching her for a long time…He thought about Alejandra and he remembered her the first time he ever saw her passing along the cienaga road in the evening with the horse still wet from her riding it in the lake and he remembered birds and the cattle standing in the grass and the horses on the mesa. The sky was dark and a cold wind ran through the bajada and in the dying light a cold blue cast had turned the doe’s eyes to but one thing more of things she lay among in that darkening landscape. Grass and Blood. Blood and Stone. Stone and the dark medallions that the first flat drops of rain caused upon them.

He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he’d first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he’s presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and felt a loneliness he’d not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

While it may not always be instantly apparent – McCarthy’s work exists and speaks, and operates on the basis that a greater, infinite meaning lies behind every thought, every feeling and every process known to man. Such a philosophy is magically real, and this provides an interesting contrast to the sobering and often morbidly ultra-real tone for which he is renowned.

Yet despite his omniscient style, McCarthy also remains ardent and uncompromising in his belief that knowledge comes only with experience or rather loss (the termination of Cole’s love affair, and his future companion from book two of the trilogy, The Crossing, Billy Parham’s even greater personal losses both attest to this). Like many who have the traversed the endless miles of country before him, Cole’s fateful transition from youth to young manhood has come at a great cost. The realisation of his unshakeable will and new found resilience – plaudits of the Western masculine ideal – provides him with little or no consolation. Instead, the pastoral idealism that led him on his path has affixed the cold, unremitting metallic weight of adulthood to his chest and not pride or fulfilment, and the ‘dark medallions’ of his adolescent ventures expose a sadness and sense of loss that only the world around him can relate.

Thus, whilst essential for survival in the perilous environments he finds himself in, Cole ultimately pays the price for his rugged masculine individuality.  Whether it is predetermined or not, he soon learns that he is inextricably bound to his fate, and this belief, or resignation (as those who are familiar with the trilogy know only too well) proves to have extreme ramifications for him in the years to come. In this sense, the novel is perhaps McCarthy’s most enduring existential statement.

And whilst its deeper significance may be lost on John Grady Cole, his retort to the Captain’s feeble chastisement towards the end of the novel could not be more true:

You make bad troubles for you self.

I got troubles you never even heard of.