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Culture Watch

Page Two


by Cormac McCarthy
Published by Vintage Books/Random House, Inc., paperback: 287 pp

Having read some advance publicity on this book, I was a bit leery of taking it on. Post-apocalyptic subject matter has been painfully overblown in everything from books to television, and most of it seems to me to be of a highly romantic and improbable nature.

I should have known that in the masterful hands of Cormac McCarthy, the subject would be both unbearable and beautiful. He is a writer of brilliance and sensitivity (see All the Pretty Horses, or Outer Dark, for example). If anyone can keep the reader glued to page after grim page, he can.

Make no mistake: the book is profoundly disturbing. Set in an essentially dead world, it is the tale of a father and son on a journey to nowhere. Civilization has been destroyed; nature (trees, animals, all growing things) are gone. Water is tainted and grey from the ash of a massive fallout. Even the sky is murky, and the sun dulled.

The boy and the man are heading south, trying to reach the coast, hoping that the area around the Gulf will at least be warm. They subsist on whatever they can find, struggling along while pushing a shopping cart containing everything that they own. They are dirty, cold, and starving. They subsist on whatever they can scavenge from deserted houses and stores. There are corpses everywhere, in various stages of decay. While there are a few other survivors on the roads, civilization as we know it has broken down, and the countryside is plagued by roving bands of “bad guys,” as the father terms them. These men and women enslave or kill anyone they meet, and at times resort to cannibalism.

A brief respite in a house that is set back from the road, and thus has not been plundered, ends when a band of the bad guys discover it. Father and son’s harrowing escape keeps them in an even more advanced state of terror for many miles.

The horrors that McCarthy describes with such immediacy would be enough to disturb even the most sanguine reader. Many times this reviewer thought: “I can’t take much more of this.” But the writing is so compelling that stopping isn’t an option. Compelling, too, are the portrayals of strength in the face of hopelessness, the power of love and trust between father and son, and the harsh lessons of survival that the son must learn despite his human instincts for pity and connection.

There’s no happy ending here, but rather a transcendent understanding that where man meddles too deeply, things cannot be repaired. A world changed forever gives no quarter to the small creatures who have destroyed it.


And Consider This

by Ian Rankin, © 2006
Published by Little, Brown & Company, hardcover, 452 pp

Scottish writer Ian Rankin is the author of an impressive number of novels, most of them part of the Inspector Rebus series. For a long time, I have read glowing reviews of Rankin’s works without wanting to dip into any book whose detective is named Rebus. “Too cute,” I thought, naming him after those puzzles from my childhood Highlights magazine, where words or syllables were represented by pictures, and one had to decipher the clues very carefully.

Well, it was a wrong judgment and I’ve probably missed a lot, an error that I’ll need to correct forthwith — but given the long list of prior titles, it’ll be a good while before I’m done with the project.

This story takes place during the G8 conference in Edinburgh during July, 2004. Rebus, sidelined because of his superiors feel that his unorthodox methods of criminal investigation may prove an embarrassment, manages to become involved in a murder that places him in the middle of the political stew despite the best efforts of his commanders.

Rankin is a fine writer, and it’s a joy to romp along with such a complex tale. Rebus is a fascinating, flawed character who is not always admirable, but at all times is intelligent and driven. The female characters in this story also have depth and dimension, something the male writers of thrillers often overlook. In all, The Naming of the Dead is an interesting, involving read.


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© 2007 Julia Sneden for

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